Chapter 47

I only allowed myself a few seconds to despair at the wealth of data, the fact that the information I wanted could be stored on any one or any combination of the servers contained within the room, and the gradually descending guillotine represented by our fifteen minute deadline. When those seconds passed, I gave my brain a figurative kick in the rear and started to think.

There were too many servers to check manually. That hadn’t been a reasonable option to begin with, but I could safely rule that out now. Fully cataloging the contacts of just one server could take fifteen to twenty minutes all by itself. Then I’d have to deal with the transfer speed, which could easily add just as much time to the sum total. If I had to repeat that process a dozen times, it would be easier to walk downstairs and admit my double identity on live television. I’d be caught by the Magi in short order, but at least I wouldn’t have to die mentally exhausted.

It was okay, though. There were other options. With access to the building’s wireless internet – which was, in a rare stroke of luck, absurdly fast – I could take advantage of some of my cloud resources. Where my tablet would fail to work quickly enough, the cloud would be able to pick up the slack. Not all of the slack, unfortunately, but some was better than none.

Where do we start?” Devlin asked.

I suppressed the urge to shoot him a dirty look. It wasn’t his fault that he’d asked the exact question I’d be on the verge of asking myself. There were at least twelve servers that I could see from my position and I wasn’t willing to discount the possibility of smaller, more specialized racks just out of sight. I checked the building’s floor plan and cross-referenced it with the public list of buildings that rented out space in the Sovereign.

That didn’t help. Any twenty-first century business could use servers I couldn’t rule any one business out and, even if I could have, that didn’t actually provide me with that much assistance in the moment. There was no rule forbidding a given business from using two or three different servers to keep their confidential data isolated. And still nothing said that the object of our search hadn’t deleted itself or changed its metadata or otherwise made inaccessible.

I shook my head. Negative thinking like that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I needed a plan.

Sarah?” Devlin asked. He didn’t sound unsure, necessarily, but there was a beat of nervousness in his voice. “How can I help?”

The irritation flared back up again. This was Devlin’s specialty, but he was practically useless when it came to technology. I couldn’t teach him about data storage on this scale in the time we had available, any more than he could upload his preternatural ability to navigate spontaneous chaos. If I could, that would have made things –

I cut myself off, mid-internal monologue, as an insane idea occurred to me. I spun around to face Devlin before I could talk myself out of it. “Take the left side of the room. I want you to daisy chain the servers together.”

He blinked wide, uncomprehending eyes back at me.

You’re going to look for a USB cord. Looks exactly like this one, okay?” I fished out the USB cord and held it up in front of me. “There’s usually a few laying around. We might even find them already plugged into the servers. Leave one end attached to each server and run the other one over to connect with the next server in line. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Devlin clearly didn’t understood the specifics of what I was saying, but he knew the words. He nodded and immediately hurried over to the left side of the room, searching for a USB cord that wasn’t connected on both ends to the server.

While he did that, I put down my bag and removed my tablet. I thought about just closing the bleaching program but decided, after a horrific mental image of misclicking, to turn the tablet entirely off and restart it from scratch. If the bleaching program decided to activate itself, either through my accidental motions or some unforeseen interaction between programs, all of the data on the server would be deleted beyond recovery.

That would piss off the Texan, sure, but it wouldn’t matter to me. The Community would go to war with the Magi, and they would lose. My friends would be captured, through their connection with me, and we’d all die fiery, painful deaths.

By that measure, it would have been irresponsible to do anything less than a full restart. It wasn’t like the damn thing took that long to boot up.

Sarah? This one looks different. Is there a functional difference between the two or should I keep looking?”

I angled my head so that I could glance over at Devlin. He held a thin black cord in his hand, with a silvery attachment at one end. I had to narrow my eyes to make out the details. It was still a USB cord, but the attachment was unfamiliar. It could have been a proprietary substitute, but I doubted that any business with the funds to take up space in the Sovereign would spend money on an untested program. Unless the previous floor’s open floor design actually did belong to some tech firm who was field testing some new development, but that would open me to up all sorts of bugs and crashes until I managed to get a grip on the technology, at which point –

Devlin snapped his fingers in the air. He was far enough away that I didn’t react to the sudden movement, so much as the sharp sound. “Stay with me, Sarah. Is this a good thing or not?”

It should be good,” I said, making a snap decision. If I was wrong, we’d deal with it later.

I’m connecting them, then. What are you doing?”

I walked over to the right side of the room and searched for the same cord that Devlin had found. I located one, connected to a clicking, humming server without too much effort. It was just long enough to reach the nearest server with a little bit of extra tugging.

We worked quietly for five minutes, accompanied only by the steady hum of fans. When we’d each linked up our sides of the room, I accessed a few of my more powerful cloud servers via the tablet. Encrypting the connection would take too long, so I was forced to use a less secure method of connection to get it done. Unless someone decided to remotely access the logs at that exact moment, however, any later examination would only show an unusual request. There wouldn’t be a solid trail to follow.

Of course, I could easily believe that someone would pick this random moment to perform a routine security sweep. That concern went into the growing pile of worrisome thoughts I was trying very hard not to pay attention to.

See, I can’t go through all of these servers one at a time,” I said out loud. Mostly, I spoke my thoughts for Devlin’s benefit, but it also helped me to stay focused on the task at hand. “But I don’t really need to do that.”

What other options do you have?”

I already have the metadata from Tangiers,” I said. “From that, I can make a reasonable assumption about when the server was accessed and from where. All I’ve got to do is narrow the search parameters, so that I can filter out anything that isn’t relevant to the search.”

You can guess, you mean,” Devlin said. I looked up from my tablet and narrowed my eyes at him; he shrugged back in response. “It sounds a hell of a lot better than my idea of throwing each of these servers out of the window and collecting them later. I’m just saying.

Yes, Devlin, I can guess. But it’s an educated guess, with a very high probability of success.”

He shrugged a second time. “And the Texan? How are we going to get what he’s after?”

For a few moments, I’d actually forgotten that the Texan had his own goals in mind. “If I’m already pulling files, I’ll just add emails to the parameters. They’re generally small files, so it shouldn’t add too much time to the general task.”

And if the intelligence he’s looking for can’t be found in the emails?”

Devlin was being unusually pessimistic, but I couldn’t spare the brainpower to try and figure out why. “Then I’m screwed,” I said. “So I’m going to hope that it is in the emails and move on from there.”

Fair enough. I’ll just stand here quietly and marvel at how talented you are.”

Yes. Do that exact thing. But get out of my light.”

He stepped to the side and the azure blue light of the servers was no longer blocked by his body. Utilizing my cloud services wasn’t a complicated task, but it did take some time. When I was connected, I’d effectively be able to offload any memory-heavy task to the remote servers; until then, I was limited to the comparatively miniscule resources of a tablet small enough to fit into my purse.

God, I needed to get my hands on some newer technology. I couldn’t keep putting that off, if this debacle was going to continue escalating with every new development.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I noticed a standalone monitor protruding from one end of the closest rack. I’d missed it while connecting cords but, from my new position, I was just barely able to spot the edge.

Jackpot,” I muttered to myself and made my way over. If my guess was right, someone had decided that this particular server room merited its own persistent access point. Instead of relying on portable laptops or tablets to troubleshoot errors, it was always possible to simply install a computer directly in the server room. That way, whatever problems occurred, it would never be too difficult for a trained professional to unpack the issue and cobble together a solution.

Of course, my current problem – namely that I didn’t feel like using an outdated tablet to tackle a problem of this magnitude, with my limited amount of time rapidly dwindling away – could hardly be what the server’s designer’s had in mind.

Ah well. Their mistake. My windfall.

Sure enough, I quickly located a sliding shelf, complete with keyboard and mouse when I drew closer to the monitor. I moved the mouse, fully expecting to be confronted by yet another password screen. Instead, the monitor went from completely black to mostly black, with thin white lettering at the very top of the visible area.

A command line interface was even more good luck than I’d dared to hope for. From here, it wouldn’t take me long at all to gain complete administrator privileges. Maybe this particular assignment wouldn’t turn out to be the absolute dumpster fire I’d expected it to be.

I checked some of the programs on the tablet for the proper lines of code, then entered them into the server’s built-in computer. The command line interface disappeared and was replaced, after a few ticks, by a graphical interface that shared some noticeable similarities with the homebrew system I customarily used.

Sarah?” Devlin’s voice sounded marginally more worried than it had before. The fact that I was capable of identifying his emotions without looking up meant that he hadn’t slipped into Fully Professional Devlin mode yet. I wondered what triggered the change in him. Was it unconscious? Or did he have to deliberately decide to submerge his emotions in liquid nitrogen?

Shush,” I said, feverishly entering commands into the computer in front of me, “I’m working.”

Dutifully, he shushed. Accompanied by the sound of the servers, I used the built-in computer to narrow my search even further. If there was only one access point in the server room, it was safe to assume that, for whatever reason, the building’s occupants had consented to allow a single administrator to protect their data. Or, more likely, the administrator only saw to the uptime and accessibility of each business’ individual server. They probably used their own specialists who could actually log into and view confidential data.

That made sense. It was silly, from a network security perspective, but it seemed like exactly like the sort of thing a corner-cutting operation would pull.

The reason why intelligent businesses used their own security personnel – in fact, the reason why they typically went out of their way to keep their data physically separate from that of their competitors – was that a talented administrator could conceivably find a way out of whatever virtual sandbox they were supposed to play in. I wasn’t an administrator, but I definitely fit the ‘talented’ requirement.

It took me two minutes to gain root access to each of the networked servers and another minute to bash together an indexing program from the remains of two variants I’d been meaning to do something with. Somewhere between fifteen and thirty seconds passed while I input the specific parameters I’d decided to limit myself to, and ten seconds for the newly birthed index to start searching for, isolating, and transferring files to an overseas server I used for particularly dangerous information.

How much longer?” I asked, standing up and feeling my knees pop as I did so. My knees were popping now? Had the events of the last six months aged me prematurely or…well, no, the alternative wasn’t even worth considering.

Devlin checked his phone. “Running off of our previous estimates? Five minutes. Seven, at the absolute outside.”

I cursed. Seven minutes left upstairs wouldn’t give us enough time to finish transferring all of the available data. Even at the local wireless’ speed, it would take at least ten minutes to transfer nearly a terabyte of spreadsheets, emails, and otherwise mundane text files. Businesses collected a lot of meaningless correspondence and I hadn’t come up with the most specific terms.

My fingers drummed against my purse and, by extension, the tablet nestled within. An idea occurred to me. It wasn’t as though I needed to be physically present for the files to transfer. Really, I only needed the files to transfer in such a way that no one else bothered checking for other digital fingerprints. I could accomplish that work from anywhere in the building, now that I’d already bypassed the servers’ collective security.

We don’t have to be here,” I said, for Devlin’s benefit. “I’ll adjust something on the way back downstairs and just erase any evidence of my presence while we’re back at the fundraiser.”

Devlin raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure about that? You don’t need to be here to make sure nothing…you know, goes wrong?”

I shook my head. “It’s a data transfer. There’s literally nothing more routine. Honestly, even if it runs into an issue, I’ll still have remote access. I can start it back up whenever.”

That sounds…suspiciously like good news.” Devlin paused. “How is this going to go wrong for us?”

I gave the question serious thought. There were a lot of things that could go wrong, but we’d either dealt with or avoided those traps. Someone else had seen us…but that person had been a cat burglar, busy robbing the building for his own purposes. We didn’t have enough time to accomplish our goals…but I’d remembered a way to get what we wanted without risking further exposure.

After a minute of intense thought, I was fairly sure that I’d considered everything. “Barring nuclear war,” I said slowly, “the only thing that could actually mess up the transfer would be if -”

The power went out. It happened in an instant. A metallic wrenching sound barely reached my ears, followed by a much louder crack, and then nothing except darkness and the sounds of the city, twenty floors below us. The blue lights on the servers went dead, all at once, leaving Devlin and I standing alone in a pitch black room, on a pitch black floor of a pitch black building.

After a few heartbeats, Devlin cleared his throat. “You were saying?”

I waited a few heartbeats of my own before I answered him. “Oh shut up.”

Chapter 46

The security room was located three doors to the left of the staircase, exactly as promised. Devlin grumbled something inaudible at the sight of the convenient block letters labeling the room as such, then knelt to examine the lock.

Did you bring your lock picks?” I asked.

He answered without looking up from the doorknob. “No, I wasn’t expecting to use them. My mistake, I guess.”

So what are you going to do, then? Convince the door to open of its own accord?”

Devlin glanced over his shoulder for an instant and blew out a frustrated sigh from his nostrils. “I need an office,” he said. “And paper clips.”

For a moment, I considered returning to the nineteenth floor and searching for the required office supplies there. But that moment passed and I dismissed the idea. Surely someone who worked on the twentieth floor used paper clips for something. It wouldn’t take much time to locate something that innocuous. Besides, I was probably going to need some additional equipment of my own: things that I hadn’t thought to bring or that wouldn’t have fit inside my purse, even if I’d been feeling particularly paranoid.

There was also the matter of the open window where the cat burglar Barrett – I doubted that was even his real name, but it was better than capitalizing him as The Cat Burglar in my mind – had leaped for freedom. Just because I wasn’t familiar with the Sovereign’s security system didn’t mean I doubted its existence. When one of the guards managed to free themselves or when whatever security system Barrett had cheerfully ignored decided to get its act together, I didn’t want to be anywhere near the scene of the crime. So to speak.

A quick sweep of the surroundings, accompanied by a modicum of effort, led Devlin and I to a reasonably sized corner office a little farther down the hall. There weren’t any visible cameras which would have been nice if I hadn’t been driven into the farthest reaches of paranoia by the particulars of my life. But no sirens went off, no lights switched on, and a horde of guards didn’t pour out of the nearest doors, so I accepted my good fortune with a measure of healthy skepticism instead of outright disbelief. Either way, when Devlin motioned for me to step into the office and out of the exposed hallway, I breathed a little sigh of relief.

One second,” he said. He began rifling through desk drawers, muttering the occasional soft curse.

Actually,” I said, “if we’re already going to be here, there’s some things I can do to speed this up.”

Devlin glanced up, one hand buried up to the elbow in a voluminous cabinet. “What’s that?”

I only brought a USB drive,” I said. “If there’s more information available than will fit on this drive, I’ll need some other way to transfer it.”

Which means?”

Instead of answering, I walked around to the opposite side of the desk, closer to Devlin and with my back facing a window. A single laptop – nothing impressive, as far as I could see, but also nothing to scoff at – rested alone in the exact center of the desk. I attempted to switch the device on, but my progress was halted by a request for a password even before the operating system had an opportunity to boot.

There’s something you can do about that, right?” Devlin asked.

I didn’t exactly ignore him, but I didn’t really hear him either. My attention narrowed down to a list of possible ways to access this computer and the information contained within. I still had my tablet and there were a variety of password cracking programs pre-loaded on that. With a USB cord and physical access, it wouldn’t take more than five minutes to suss out any password the average user might concoct. A glance at the surroundings elevated my estimate: assuming the corner office belonged to an executive, the password cracking programs might take as long as ten minutes.

Not a long time by any stretch of the imagination, but still too long for our purposes. With a laptop of my own design or perhaps access to the cloud computing services I typically made use of, it would take less time. However, I didn’t have a laptop of my own design and cloud services were off the table without an internet connection. Logging on via my cell phone would be slow, especially so close to the cage around the servers, and using the tablet in offline mode would yield similar results.

A thought occurred to me, bringing a thin smile to my lips. I disconnected the laptop from its power supply and flipped it upside down. There, written on a sticky note pressed firmly to the battery, I found a username, a PIN, and a random alphanumeric sequence.

Benjamin Franklin had once said that the only certain things in life were death and taxes. In my experience, the age of computers had proffered a third item to add: the inability of office workers to adhere to even the most basic electronic security protocols.

I entered the PIN and the computer’s initial lock screen – its first line of defense, in a very real way – yielded before my intrusion. When the main operating system screen appeared, I used the username and alphanumeric password. Again, the laptop’s protection gave way.

Almost too easy,” I said out loud. Then, realizing how close I’d come to jinxing us at the exact instant that Devlin drew in a sharp breath, I added, “Not actually too easy. But almost. People are so bad at computer security. Almost takes the fun out of it.”

There were two reasons I needed the laptop. I couldn’t steal the thing out of the building…well, I could have done that, but it might have raised questions later and I didn’t want some mid-level executive to lose their job because of what I needed to do. No, I was after information and the simplest way to acquire said information was to access a computer that already had it. A password for access to the wireless internet would allow me to use my cloud computing to deal with any further digital locks and it provided a semi-secure method of transferring data and metadata from the servers back to a location where I could sort through it later.

The USB drive would do in a pinch, but I preferred having options.

To my right, Devlin located a treasure trove of office supplies. He extracted two Bic pens and a fistful of paper clips. I tilted my head and lifted one eyebrow.

Better safe than sorry,” he said, with a shrug. Despite the tension of the moment, I felt a wild urge to laugh out loud.

Instead of doing that, I gestured for us to get back to business. I left the office first, Devlin closed the door behind him, and we went back to the security room. It took him at least four lockpicks to finagle the door to the security room open, which was a lot better than I could have done. In the past, Devlin had spent many painstaking hours attempting to teach me the finer points of picking locks, to absolutely no avail. I equated my failure in his skill set to his utter inability to grasp the finer points – or, often, even the broader strokes – of what I did. He had taken the matter a bit more personally.

The inside of the security room looked identical to command hubs I’d seen in a dozen different buildings, just like the Sovereign. I went straight to the main monitor, unspooling the USB cord and plugging it into my laptop as I went.

Watch the door,” I said. “If someone comes up here, I’d rather not be caught in flagrante.”

Devlin snickered. “Was that something we were worried about?”

Oh shut up.”

Dutifully, Devlin shut up and took up position just the side of the door. If anyone attempted to enter the room behind us, he was poised to get the drop on them. Of course, I would have preferred to keep the violence to a minimum, but we would do what we had to do. Or, rather, he would do it. I had my own work to accomplish.

In London, I’d used a variant of some bleaching freeware, along with a bit of ingenuity, to create some malware specifically designed to target video files and erase them from existence. In its original form, the virus would have erased the entire hard drive, as well as any external drives that attempted to connect to the main system for about twenty-four hours. That had worked fine when we were up against a drug lord. Now, if that much information went missing, IT professionals would absolutely start looking for signs of other computer crime.

The average engineer or digital forensic specialist wasn’t a match for me on my best day but I was far from operating at my best. Subtlety would be required here.

My tablet wasn’t the best device to rapidly alter code, but most of the work I needed to do could be accomplished with clever cutting and pasting. A light smattering of specialized commands were required so that the bleaching program only targeted a subset of all possible files took another minute or two. When that was finished, I connected the tablet to the main system and began to load the program.

While that was happening, I allowed my mind a few moments to relax and adapt to the events of the last few minutes. Barrett had been such an unexpected development that I’d quite simply refused to deal with the ramifications of his arrival. It had either been dumb luck or some sort of impossibly complicated plan that had led to our abrupt meeting on the floor below. I was disinclined to believe the former, but the latter possibility required someone with near-prescient levels of planning.

The Lady was good, but she wasn’t that good. Even she’d been forced to rely on the Texan’s services, just to get her preferred agents close enough to start taking wild swings at her enemies. And the Magi…well, there wasn’t really any way to know exactly how good they were at anything, was there? Their agents could be anywhere, from the highest levels of law enforcement down to the lowest levels of the criminal underworld. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that they could contract the services of a cat burglar – a real cat burglar, which really shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did – but then that changed the question.

Not who had hired Barrett’s services, assuming that he’d been hired at all. But what had he been ordered to steal?

He’d mentioned the thirtieth floor. From my brief research into the Sovereign, I recalled that the building was owned by Sotheby’s Realty, a company that had some complicated connection with Sotheby’s Auction House. As far as I knew, auctions weren’t held in Atlanta, but there was always the chance that some goods were stored off-site for additional security. Could there be a safe somewhere? Or some illicit storage space for goods that the reputable auction house wasn’t willing to claim.

The thirtieth floor was one of the residential floors, too. Even if the company didn’t have an official or unofficial stash of goods, that didn’t exclude the possibility of a client using their building to store illicit gains. How hard would it be to hide some cache in a secret wall safe in a luxury apartment rented under a false name? It was the kind of thing I would do, if I’d ever been in the business of stealing gemstones.

There was more going on than I knew about. That was a sensation I was growing uncomfortably familiar with, but it wasn’t one I’d grown to like. Secrets led to surprises and surprises, without fail, threw the largest of wrenches into otherwise well-designed plans.

I couldn’t afford surprises anymore. Not if there was anything I could do about it, at least.

Barrett had said that he expected police attention. He wanted people to know that he’d broken into the Sovereign. If that was the case, would he really have avoided any additional cameras on the higher floors? If he’d been walking around with his face uncovered, I wouldn’t have bothered searching through the files. But he had covered his face, and he’d donned a ski mask without expecting to run into a pair of thieves heading upstairs for their own nefarious ends.

The tablet beeped to inform me that the bleaching program was primed for activation. Before I activated it, which would erase an hour in either direction of the moment I pressed ‘start’ and loop the previous hour to cover all of the intervening time, I performed a quick search for other video files located on the server. Not every floor was monitored by the same system, which made sense. My search returned information about the 21st through the 24th floors, skipped over the 25th and 26th, resumed for the 27th and 28th, and showed nothing at all for the 29th and 30th.

I swore under my breath.

Everything okay?” Devlin asked. He was still poised like a cat, but he risked a quick glance away from the door in my direction.

It’s nothing,” I said. “I’m fine. I’ll explain later. Anyway, I’m almost done here. How much longer do we have?”

He checked his phone. “Somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes. Depends on your grandmother, how long it takes for you to find what you’re after in the server room, travel time back to the fundraiser…”

Alright, alright. I’m hurrying.”

The thirtieth floor wasn’t one of the floors under surveillance. I spent the time to download the video files directly to my tablet which didn’t take very long. Then I activated the program and disconnected. The main monitor flickered and switched off momentarily. When it turned itself back on, it displayed the interior of the security room…except that Devlin and I weren’t visible in the image. The timestamp at the bottom of the screen was accurate, but that data wasn’t.

Easy enough. The programming wasn’t as elegant as I would have liked, but it was hardly a difficult thing to pull off in the moment. The fact that it hadn’t been all that difficult filled me with an irrational paranoia that I tried my best to ignore.

This system won’t be recording anything for the next hour,” I said, as I gathered my equipment up and returned it to my oversized purse. “Of course, my grandmother’s going to start looking for us long before that, so it’s kind of a moot point.”

Agreed,” Devlin said. He eased the door open. “After you?”

With the security system temporarily disabled and the guards either neutralized or absent, Devlin and I didn’t encounter any difficulties navigating through the twentieth floor. Three sides of the server room’s enclosure were opaque, but the fourth was entirely transparent. A steady blue glow of power lights and Ethernet connections cast one quarter of the room in an eerie light. I took the lead and Devlin followed me over to the only door leading into the enclosure.

A numerical pad was installed in a recess, just to one side of the door. There wasn’t a traditional lock in sight.

Any ideas?” Devlin asked.

I shrugged, extended my arm, and tapped out the same PIN that had unlocked the executive’s laptop earlier. To my complete and utter shock, the red indicator light on the keypad flashed green and the door itself emitted a soft clicking sound.

Oh my God,” I said. “Remind me later to get my grandmother to move our data off-site. This is ridiculous. The same PIN for a personal computer and it’s written down?”

That’s a bad thing, right?”

I narrowed my eyes at Devlin before I noticed the slight grin on his face. “You know,” I said, “you’re not as clever and cute as you think you are.”

You think I’m clever and cute?”

In response, I rolled my eyes as hard as I possibly could to signify my complete dismissal of Devlin’s nonsense and entered the server room. He entered, almost on my heels.

Then stopped, as I stopped. I’d expected to find a reasonable amount of servers. Ford Enterprises comprised a significant business entity all on its own and that sort of corporation tended to accumulate data. I had not expected there to be enough servers on the twentieth floor that every business in the building would struggle to fill the available space.

These were newer models, built for speed and storage space, that I had only read about it. In my line of work, I very rarely found myself dealing with this much data. With time, I could have created some system of sifting through the servers, one at a time, and worked from there. Even with the tablet, it would only have taken me…maybe a half hour, start to finish, if I wanted to be thorough and to allow time for the data transfer.

Fifteen minutes,” Devlin said. “At most.”

Or fifteen minutes. That worked too, apparently.

Chapter 45

My first instinct was to hide. I was too recognizable, too immediately memorable to hope for anything resembling anonymity from this position. Nothing I had on my person could possibly conceal my face from the man in front of me, and I couldn’t risk being caught like this. That was an impossibility, though. The floor plan was too open, without any convenient cubicle walls or desks that I could duck out of sight behind.

The second thought that popped into my head – courtesy, no doubt, of my time around Mila – was attack. Maybe if I could give the strange figure something else to occupy his attention, Devlin and I could take him down and make sure that he wouldn’t run off to report back on who he’d found sneaking around the upper floors of the Sovereign in the dead of night. But…no, that wouldn’t work either. Whoever he was, the strange man had managed to take down both of the floor’s guards and he’d done it quietly enough that we hadn’t even noticed his intrusion at first. And, even if we could subdue him in the short term, what could we really hope to do from there? We couldn’t hold him indefinitely. Whether we eventually released him or he made his own escape, I’d be in the same peril, except that our captive would then have a vested interest in extracting some sort of revenge.

It wasn’t until the third idea clarified itself in my mind that I paused for the microseconds necessary to actually think. What did I know and how could I use that knowledge? What were my strengths, what were Devlin’s, and how could I leverage those to get us out of trouble in the next few minutes? A thin trickle of adrenaline, not unlike the current I’d subsided on during the hectic night in Tangiers, began to fill my veins as my eyes flicked around the room, taking in data to be analyzed later.

In the thin margin of time before Devlin moved into position and the masked man would be forced to respond, I realized several things.

First: the guards had been disabled, but they hadn’t been killed. As far as I could tell, they hadn’t even been seriously wounded. The masked man had incapacitated them somehow, tied them up, gagged them so that they wouldn’t be able to raise an alarm, and blindfolded them. I didn’t understand the purpose of the blindfold – if he was already going to wear a ski mask, what was the point? – but it did mean that I didn’t have to worry about three people identifying me, for the moment.

Second: I’d been put on alert by a stray breeze, winding its way through the floor space from an open window on the far side of the room. If I was willing to assume that coincidence was a poor way to explain things, that meant the open window had contributed in some way to the presence of the masked man in front of me…that was, the open window on the nineteenth floor.

Third: all available evidence pointed to the man in front of me as a cat burglar. An honest-to-goodness, black turtleneck-clad, wall-crawling, cat burglar. It was such an absurd intrusion into the realm of fiction that I – Sarah Ford, hacker extraordinaire, and unwilling agent of the mysterious Lady in the Black Dress – could scarcely believe it. Cat burglars weren’t real. They were the bogeymen that rich idiots and careless nobility created to explain away their own bad investments or a foolish overconfidence in their own security. We preyed on people who believed in cat burglars. Few things are easier than picking someone’s pocket when their eyes are focused on the skylights, after all.

Yet, one stood in front of us, seeming almost as awkward and stunned as I felt.

All those thoughts flashed through my head in two heartbeats. I barely had enough time to open my mouth to say something before Devlin surged into action. There wasn’t even a yard between where he stood and the now open door, and he crossed that space like a streak of dark lightning. While I’d been planning to speak,all I could do was suck in a harsh breath as Devlin’s used one arm to press the masked man up against the wall and pressed his other forearm into the man’s throat.

Who are you and what do you want?” Devlin asked in a dangerous growl. It wasn’t the voice he’d used on the Texan. In that tone, he’d at least kept the threat sub vocal, implied rather than explicit. Now, his voice was so gravely that I couldn’t believe he wasn’t causing himself pain to produce it.

The masked man choked out an unintelligible syllable in response. Devlin eased up a little on the pressure, so that his victim could take in a shallow breath. “Barrett,” the masked man croaked. “Name’s Barrett. Nice to meet you too.”

What’re you doing here, Barrett?”

Devlin moved slightly to one side as he spoke. It took me a moment to realize that he was blocking Barrett’s sight line with his own body. Sure, he might have seen my face for a split second, but that was a far cry from being able to positively identify me later. I suppressed the urge to pat Devlin on the back for his quick thinking.

Same thing you are,” Barrett said. He drew in another shaky breath. “Unless there’s some other reason for you to be up here in the dead of night?”

I took advantage of Barrett’s situation and gave my surroundings a closer examination. After a second, I spotted a gray towel that looked reasonably clean. I knelt, retrieved the towel, and tied it around the bottom half of my face like a bandanna. Another brief search in my bag yielded a thick scrunchy. I used that to pull most of my hair out of my eyes, leaving only enough to cast my eyes in some shadow. Then, just to be safe, I stepped even farther back into the shadows before I said a word.

Picked a bad time to rob this place,” I called out from the shadows. I made an effort to sound different: lowering my pitch, adding strange pauses in the middle of my sentences, and pronouncing each word just a little bit different. My impersonation of the Lady wouldn’t win me any awards, but I had to hope it would add just a little more uncertainty if Barrett decided to start talking about who he’d seen and where he’d seen them.

All things considered,” Barrett said, shifting his weight so that he could breathe a little more easily with Devlin’s forearm still pressed into his throat, “seems like I picked the right time. Everybody’s downstairs, drinking forty dollar cocktails and patting themselves on the back, and no one’s paying attention to anything happening upstairs. That’s not why you’re here?”

Devlin turned his head slightly in my direction. Whatever he’d intended to say never got past the thought stage, though. The very instant that Devlin’s eyes left him, Barrett twisted his head sharply to one side. The movement gave him a millimeter of space between Devlin’s forearm and Barrett’s own windpipe. Barrett’s hand whipped up, almost invisible in the darkness, and found the inside of Devlin’s elbow. It was a quick, almost impossibly precise action. Devlin’s arm flew away from Barrett’s neck and Barrett dropped down before Devlin could reapply pressure. As Devlin’s forearm collided with the wall, Barrett pivoted around my ex-husband and did…something. It was too dark to see clearly. The end of result of the exchange, however, was obvious even in the low light of the open floor space.

Devlin ‘s face was pressed against the wall, with one of his arm twisted up at a painful angle behind his back. Barrett stood behind him. The black-clad man had one foot pressed against the inside of Devlin’s right instep; the other foot was a good six inches farther back, providing leverage.

Now then,” Barrett said. The calmness of his voice clashed with the ease with which he’d just turned the tables on Devlin. “Can we talk about this like gentlemen? Or gentle people, rather; I don’t mean to insult the lady.”

Let me go,” Devlin said through gritted teeth, “and I’ll be happy to discuss this at length.”

Barrett chuckled. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t take your word for it, at the moment. I’m told this hold can be quite painful, so you’re probably not feeling very charitable at the moment. If your friend wants to vouch for you, though, I’m sure we can come to an agreement of some sort.”

Let him go,” I said, as loudly as I dared. Just because the floors below had been empty didn’t mean they’d stayed that way. “If you want to talk, let’s talk. No need for the violence.”

Your kind friend here started it,” Barrett said. Then, surprisingly, he released Devlin’s arm and took several quick steps back. “But I’m more than willing to let bygones be bygones, if you are. Let’s just agree that we got off to a bad start.”

Devlin’s glare could have melted steel at a hundred paces. He massaged his elbow in sullen silence and kept his lips tightly pressed together.

I knew that I couldn’t risk talking much. Accents weren’t my thing and it would only be a matter of time before I slipped up and revealed too much. But, if Devlin wasn’t going to talk, someone had to. I didn’t have the time to wait for Barrett, whoever he was, to set a leisurely tone for our conversation.

What floor did you come from?” I asked.

Twenty-third,” Barrett answered promptly. He went down to one knee and began rummaging around in a bag I hadn’t noticed before. Probably black, like his outfit. “You?”

Twentieth.”

Barrett whistled softly. “Server room? I never really understood the computer thing. I mean, I can use them, but why? Diamonds…you can actually feel them, you know?”

Harder to fence diamonds,” I pointed out. “And if you do it right, no one even knows when you’ve broken into a computer.”

That’s fair, I suppose.” Barrett stood back up. He was holding something in both hands and I had to remind myself that his tone hadn’t changed in the slightest before he’d attacked and beaten Devlin in the space of a few seconds.

I waited for Devlin to fill the silence. He didn’t, so I spoke again. “Are we going to have any issues?”

Upstairs?” Barrett shook his head. “Cameras, obviously, but nothing you didn’t already know about. Security room is right up the stairs, third door on the right, by the way. I didn’t see any guards, so it’s probably being watched from off-site.”

That was certainly useful information. “Appreciate that,” I said. “But I meant are we going to have any problems?”

The three of us?” Barrett barked out another laugh. “Nothing we haven’t already settled.”

So you didn’t see us?” I pressed, stepping down hard on the childish petulance I felt rising from within me. For years, I’d managed to keep my identity a total secret. Most people who’d worked with Devlin didn’t even know that he had a partner. Now, in a little over six months, at least four people knew what I moonlighted as. The fact that only one of them – again, as far as I knew – was aware of my online identity by name didn’t make me feel any better.

Who am I going to tell?” Barrett asked. “You think the cops really want to hear from someone who was also stealing from this august establishment?”

Not a promise, but I couldn’t have trusted a promise anyway. As things stood, I really only had the threat of mutually assured destruction at my fingertips. “As long as you keep it that way, we didn’t see anyone either.”

He tilted his head. I couldn’t quite see his eyes in the low light, but I could imagine that they’d narrowed slightly. “Are you kidding? I’m hoping you tell people. How else are they going to know I kept my word?”

I blinked at that, unsure of what response I should make. While I pondered, Barrett strolled casually over to the open window. He fiddled with something I couldn’t see, then paused for a second.

What?” I asked. “If you’re thinking about blackmail, I wouldn’t.”

Wouldn’t dream of it,” Barrett said. He fished something out of his pocket and dropped it the floor. “But I’m going to be in the country for a little bit. Assuming you can stick to this whole ‘honor among thieves’ thing, I feel like I could use a local to show me around. Or..I don’t know, maybe for some other things.”

He winked at me. I couldn’t see it, of course; the moon was on the opposite side of the building. But I could feel it, I swear to God.

Devlin picked that moment to find his voice again. “How about you don’t and just say that you did?”

Barrett chuckled and shrugged. “If your friend here ever decides you’re big enough to come out and play, give me a call. We’ll set up a play date and everything.”

How would I call you?” The words came out of my mouth without stopping to check in with my rational brain.

Barrett looked down at the floor. “You’ll figure it out.”

Then, before I could say anything else, he took two fast steps forward and threw himself out of the window.

I took a long step toward him, choking down a scream of horror, but Devlin stopped me from going any further. When my conscious mind checked in, I put together the disparate clues I’d noticed. The bag I couldn’t see, whatever item he’d been holding in his hands, the fact that he’d apparently entered the Sovereign on the last floor before cameras became an obstacle. Barrett hadn’t just entered through the nineteenth story; he’d originally planned to leave that way, too.

Another minute or two in either direction and we wouldn’t even have encountered him. We weren’t going up to the same floor he’d just finished pilfering and, by his own admission, he wasn’t the type to mess with computers. It had been pure luck that had introduced us.

Pure luck, that is, unless you were the type of person who’d long since given up on coincidences.

Are you okay?” I asked Devlin. The hand he’d used to stop me had been attached to the arm Barrett had twisted.

I’m fine,” Devlin said. He didn’t sound fine. But, at the same time, he didn’t sound like he was in any physical pain. Losing a fight that quickly had probably done a number on his self-esteem. “How are you?”

He didn’t do anything except -” I cut myself off. I’d been planning on finishing that sentence by pointing out that Barrett had been flirting with me from the start, but it felt like this wasn’t the right time to point that out. “…except give me a minor heart attack.”

Mmmhmm,” Devlin said. He managed to pack more questions into those two syllables than anyone should have been able to do. He walked away from me, over to the window, and dropped to examine the floor. In the darkness, Devlin’s keen eyes were able to spot something that I almost certainly would’ve missed.

What is it?” I asked.

A card,” Devlin said. He returned to my side and held out the card to me, pinched between his index and middle fingers.

I took the flat rectangle and squinted to read what was written on its surface. On the front of the card, there was no lettering that I could make out. In place of writing, a stylized claw had been embossed with great care. On the back, there was only an email address: goldilocks321@gmail.com.

I tucked the card away into my purse and felt Devlin’s gaze fall on me. “If we’d known a cat burglar that we could trust,” I pointed out, “this whole evening would have gone a hell of a lot easier.”

Devlin snorted. “You don’t even know him, but you’re already speculating about whether or not we can trust him?”

His sentence came out with a little heat. It wasn’t enough that I felt like responding, but I did notice the inflection. Devlin’s shoulders were a little more rigid, his eyes slightly more narrow, and one of his hands – the one attached to the injured arm – was flexing open and shut with alarming frequency.

It’s just a thought,” I said as soothingly as possible. “I’m not planning on it, God. But I just like to know what my options are.”

For some reason, that seemed to irritate Devlin even more. Instead of saying anything verbally, he grunted in a vaguely disapproving – which is to say, territorial – way and stalked over the door leading up to the server room. I followed in his wake, unsure of how I’d misspoken now or whether the shift in his mood was entirely related to his fragile male ego.

I only paused in my ruminations to look at the open window and the thick black rope I could just barely make out now. My fingers tingled slightly, as if I was still holding the strangely heavy business card with the stylized paw. Then I pushed all of those thoughts out of the way, reminded myself of why we’d come to the server room in the first place.

Twentieth floor. Hackers, information dealers, and thieves.

Game time, in other words.

Chapter 44

The sixteenth floor of the Sovereign was dark. Of course it was dark. I didn’t want to check my phone for the time, but it was well past the hour when an industrious worker might be plugging away at some last minute assignment. When Devlin and I eased the door open, I had to narrow my eyes to search for any sign of a janitor or a beleaguered junior assistant or anything of the sort.

I saw no one, looked at Devlin for confirmation, and read in his face that he’d seen no one either. It wasn’t an absolute conclusion, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was at least something to start with. Without access to the building’s security system or a more detailed blueprint to work with, our eyes were the only tools we could use. Far from ideal, for a wide variety of reasons, but it was all we had at our disposal.

I’ll go first,” Devlin whispered under his breath. He wasn’t taking chances with some unseen interloper, either. “Give me a little bit to check our immediate surroundings. Do not move from this spot until I either come back to let you know it’s okay or…”

He trailed off. I only gave him a second to formulate an answer before anxiety and adrenaline forced a question past my lips. “Or what, Dev?”

Or I set off an alarm,” he finished. “Or attract the attention of some guard we aren’t seeing. Whatever the reason, if something happens, you need to get back to the party and pretend you have no idea where I went.”

I knew that any glare I shot him wouldn’t be caught in the darkness of the staircase, but I glared at him anyway. “I don’t know how many times we’re going to have to talk about this, Dev, but -”

He cleared his throat, cutting me off before I could finish the distance. “That’s not what I’m saying, Sarah. If something goes wrong and I end up in custody, you’re the only one who’ll be able to get me out of trouble. Unless you think your grandmother would be feeling generous after her speech?”

I pressed my lips together in a tight, tense line. He had a point. My name still held clout in these circles and I was definitely dressed to play the part of a wandering heiress. I could likely intercept anyone dragging a handcuffed Devlin and negotiate his release without drawing too much attention to myself. Someone would probably have things to say about the prodigal Sarah Ford making an appearance on a closed floor, but that was a price I’d have to pay.

I don’t like it,” I said.

I don’t like it either,” Devlin replied, “but unless you’ve got another idea…”

I sighed. “I don’t. Fine. Hurry up and check out the area, then. We’re still on the timer.”

The staircase was too dark for me to see Devlin’s expression, but the silhouette of his head nodded twice. He opened the door a little wider, slipped inside, and vanished.

That left me alone in the staircase, squinting into the uniform darkness of this floor’s layout. I could make out a few desks from their shadows and the little bit of ambient light that filtered into the room through the distant windows. Other than vague details, however, I couldn’t make out anything potentially worthwhile. With my eyes rendered useless and any use of illuminated electronics out of the question, I turned my thoughts inward and attempted to sort through the last email I’d received.

A few minutes passed before I was forced to admit that I’d made no progress on sussing out the sender of the mysterious, ominous message. Each of the three options I’d come up with earlier had points to suggest their validity; at the same time, each possible answer came with a unique set of complications.

My thoughts shifted to another problem. The email had said that I shouldn’t trust him. Him who? There were only a few men I interacted with on a regular basis, especially since the London affair had catapulted us into the employ of a madwoman with a vendetta the size of an aircraft carrier. There was Devlin, but I could…well, if I couldn’t trust him, I could at least trust him to do what he thought best. My well being ranked at the top of that particular list.

Michel was a new friend, true, but he was a friend who had been instrumental during the denouement of the London debacle and who had stood by the rest of us in difficult times without flinching away. I could easily accept that he might be a mole of some sort – after the revelation of a corrupt Chief Inspector in Interpol’s ranks, only an idiot would rely on the word of a relative stranger – but, if he was a mole, then that wouldn’t be a world I wanted to live in.

That left Caelum and the Mouse. If Caelum had discovered and subjugated my mail server, he’d have access to more than enough information to start connecting dots. Someone motivated enough to dig through my web traffic and all associated metadata would almost certainly be able to find a single thread to pull on. From that thread, the whole tapestry of my double life might easily unravel.

And then, there was the Mouse. He’d always contacted me over the official channels I reserved for Community purposes: my username, generally attached to a series of random numbers. He might have been in a hurry of some sort at the time, maybe, but I couldn’t bet on anything right now. Either the Mouse was still free and potentially trying to warn me about something; we’d been discovered, and this infiltration had ended even before it had been given a chance to begin; or someone else – the Community, the Magi, Caelum, maybe even the Lady – was playing us like chess pieces.

Given those options, I really wasn’t sure which I favored most.

Devlin returned and rescued me from weighing that question in my mind. “Clear as far as I can see,” he said.

Is there a security room on this floor?” I asked. While I spoke, I pushed myself up to my full height and began brushing away imaginary specks of dust from my dress.

He shook his head. “None that I could see.” Devlin paused, switched mental tracks, and these continued. “What kind of security do these buildings normally have?”

I blinked. “You can’t guess?”

Devlin shrugged his response. A heartbeat later, he gave breath to his thoughts. “Office buildings like these aren’t high value targets, generally speaking. Occasionally, an original piece finds it way into someone’s office, but it’s never really worth the trouble. Most of the times, those paintings are just prints.”

So that’s a no?”

That’s a no.” Devlin looked around the floor’s interior one more time, as if he might have missed a whole person on his first sweep.

I swallowed down a thick knot of tension. I’d assumed that Devlin would have some experience breaking into high rises like this. Granted, we’d never taken on any jobs like that during our time together, but still. It was the aesthetic of the thing. What kind of an art thief didn’t occasionally steal things from an office?

How did I not know that?” I asked out loud.

Know what?” Devlin opened the door wide enough for me to join him in the floor space, instead of the staircase. I allowed him to lead the way through the darkened silhouettes of desks, chairs, and other accouterments.

That you didn’t do towers and the like,” I whispered back to him.

Is this really the time for a conversation, Sarah?”

I tried to look as helpless and unoffensive as possible. The darkness went a long way towards blunting the effect of any innocent expression I might have been able to muster. “Just trying to…well, not distract myself, but to keep myself from getting angsty about all this. You know I hate working without the opportunity to plan and there is a lot at stake.”

He went still for an instant. It wasn’t a long freeze – just barely longer than a full second, perhaps – but it was still noticeable for its abruptness. When the freeze passed, he looked over his shoulder and found my eyes in the gloom. I couldn’t see his face with it turned away from the ambient outdoor light, but I felt a little thrill go through my body that must have signified intense eye contact on his part.

That’s the kind of thing you see in movies, Sarah,” Devlin said. It took me a moment to connect his sentence back to my original question. “Generally speaking, if you want to break into a high-rise, you do it by waiting somewhere already inside the building. That way, you can check out guard rotations, scout any cameras that might become an issue, and you only have to figure out your exit.”

I should’ve known that. But it wasn’t as though I had as much experience in the field as Devlin and something about his tone pricked at my nerves. I didn’t say anything else until after we’d crossed the sixteenth floor without incident, located a staircase, and started the ascent to the seventeeth.

That just sounds boring,” I said.

Sitting behind a computer screen sounds boring to me,” Devlin countered, “but it works for you. Most of the jobs I pulled before we started working together were boring. Come to think of it, the majority of the jobs the two of us took on ended up being boring in one way or another.”

The unspoken subtext was clear: at least, until we started working for the Lady. Since this job had started, things had been anything but simple or boring. That was definitely something the two of us could agree on.

Devlin took the lead. With him scouting ahead of us, we cleared two more floors without trouble. Any cameras within the building were either out of the way or easily avoided and, in an effort to reduce costs, it appeared that the building managers had elected to use electronic means of surveillance instead of hiring men to patrol through the halls. I didn’t doubt that we’d run into stiffer security when we reached the actual twentieth floor but, for the most part, there simply wasn’t anything worth stealing from the desk jockeys that populated the offices we were passing through.

At the nineteenth floor, Devlin went ahead to scout the room and returned only a few seconds later. “Guards,” he hissed to me.

How many?”

Looks like two,” he said. “Could be more on patrol, though. Show me the floor plan again?”

I moved over so that he could return to the staircase and close the door before I activated my tablet and passed it over to him. Devlin examined it for a few seconds. I looked at it upside down. The floor plan for the nineteenth was more open than that of the previous three floors, which was good and bad. On the one hand, it meant that there probably weren’t additional guards hiding around corners or in darkened alcoves. On the other, the lack of cubicles or walls gave us less cover to hide behind.

If someone saw us, I could always reveal my identity. That would probably get us out of trouble, in the short term. In the long term, however, it meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the Texan’s requested information. He’d then be free to reveal my name to the first person willing to make him an agreeable offer and my life as Sarah Ford would come crashing to a violent end. Moreover, it might take us days to find another way to enter the Ford offices. I had less than a week to locate the Mouse, on top of the other thing.

Capture, detainment, or a gentle escort back down to the fundraiser were three unacceptable options. I needed a fourth that might actually prove helpful.

What are you thinking, Dev?”

Nothing pleasant,” he said. I glanced up sharply at the sound of his voice. It hadn’t reached wintry levels yet, but it was noticeably cooler than it had been before. “I’m pretty sure I can take two guards, if I have to.”

They’re just doing their job!”

And I’m just doing mine,” he countered. “I don’t want to do it, but I could probably pull it off without hurting them too bad.”

I didn’t like the part of myself that reared its head. I was discovering that pragmatism was often an unpleasant thing.

…how bad is too bad?”

Devlin shrugged, reached inside his jacket pocket, and withdrew a collapsible baton similar in construction to the one Mila typically carried. “Bad headaches,” he said. “Bruises, both on their bodies and their egos. Nothing permanent.”

I checked my phone. We’d made good time, but I still had no idea what security measures might be protecting the servers. Devlin and I couldn’t afford to spend time searching for nonviolent, noninterventionist ways of dealing with the guards. “And you’re sure you can get to them before they raise an alarm?”

Sure as I can be without trying, yeah.”

He was hesitating. It took me a second or two to realize that he was waiting for me to give him permission. Why would he do that? “Go for it, then!”

Devlin nodded and eased the door back open again. He leaned his weight on his back leg, lowered his head, and prepared to leap through the door. Seconds passed, however, and he did nothing except turn his head slowly from one side of the room to the other.

What is it?” I asked, when I could no longer bear the tension.

They’re…gone,” he said.

Gone? Where could they have gone?”

He opened the door wider so that I could join him at the very cusp of the room’s interior. There was more light on this floor, owing to the presence of several very large windows on both sides of the space. There were still deep shadows stretching in long lines across the floor, but the entire floor plan wasn’t completely shrouded in darkness.

Whatever business operated on this floor must have been some sort of new-age tech companies. I’d read somewhere that those types of firms preferred open work spaces and atypical designs, in order to better promote creativity. Personally, I thought it was just an outgrowth of a new generation seeking to mark themselves as individuals, but who was I to judge?

Small miracles,” I muttered under my breath. I moved ahead of Devlin for a few steps, but then he caught up and outpaced me.

We would have heard an elevator, wouldn’t we?” Devlin asked.

I gave him a clueless look. “From the staircase? That space was like an echo chamber. I doubt we could have heard anything from inside there.”

Devlin didn’t look convinced.

We reached the far side of the room, stopping at a door labeled ‘Information Technology Solutions’ . It wasn’t locked and there weren’t any guards in sight. I stood up before leaning on the door, stretching out the cramps in my legs from so much time spent crouched warily. A breeze raised the hairs on my arm and I rubbed self consciously at my bare skin.

Then, I blinked. Devlin glanced at me, looked down at my arms and the way I was sheltering them from the elements, and his eyes widened. A breeze meant a window was open. Who would open a window on the nineteenth floor, at this time of night?

The door to the server room burst open. Two guards, bound together, gagged, and blindfolded fell through the open portal like an oversized sack of potatoes. They were struggling to free themselves but the knots on their restraints looked extremely professional. On the heels of the two guards, someone dressed in all black – black pants, black t-shirt, black shoes, and a black ski mask – took a long step over the two tied-up men. The figure was focused on something in his hands and, due to a lack of attention, walked directly into me.

I stumbled back, dumbfounded and incapable of rationalizing this newest development. The figure in black stared blankly at me in return.

Just when I was about to scream – it was a silly reaction, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do – the figure cleared its throat. “Well,” the figure said in a rich, deep baritone. “This is awkward, isn’t it?”

Chapter 43

Devlin whipped his phone out as soon as the Texan made his exit. He talked to me while he punched at the screen. “Have you had a chance to look at the building schematics yet?”

I was napping, Dev,” I said. “No, I haven’t had an opportunity to pull up the blueprint.”

You should probably get started on that then, shouldn’t you?”

I bit back a retort. He was right. If my grandmother had accurately estimated the remaining time until her speech, we were on an impossibly short timeline. Arguing now would only eat up the few minutes we had available.

My laptop was back at the house and I still hadn’t been able to construct a proper workstation. I allowed myself a single second to mentally complain about the unfairness of my life before I fished out my own phone and began fervently searching for information about the Sovereign online. Buildings like these often kept vague blueprints online, so that prospective tenants could examine their possible purchase in comfort. There had been some information online when last I’d looked, but that had been years ago. The elevated ceiling in the conference room was proof that modifications had taken place in the intervening time, so I couldn’t trust any old memories to guide us through.

Devlin’s phone rang. He looked nervously around at our surroundings before he answered. “Yes?”

He listened to someone speaking on the other line.

Yes, thank you, I’m aware of that. But what would you have done?”

Whatever response came from the other party possessed enough vitriol that he actually pulled the phone a few inches away from his ear.

That wasn’t an option. God, it’s like you’re trying to get the authorities involved. Look, can you put Michel on?” He covered the microphone for a moment. “Sarah, Mila’s not thrilled about the last minute nature of this particular job.”

I think I could have figured that out, Dev.” My phone lit up and I scanned down the first page of search results. There wasn’t anything there. I clicked over to the second page and, halfway down the list, spotted a website that looked promising.

Michel,” Devlin said into the phone, “talk to me about escape routes. If we had to make a quick getaway, how fast could you make that happen?”

While Michel answered that question, I navigated through the website. Most of the information on the page related to rental benefits, insurance clauses, and a wealth of legal mumbo jumbo. I had to read the entire screen twice before I noticed a link that pointed to floor plans. I pulled that up and took a few seconds to verify that the image on the screen was something that might be useful.

It was very possible that even this information was out of date, but it was better than nothing. My phone screen was too small for me to make out fine details, so I connected with the tablet in my purse and sent the entire page over to that. That wasn’t a perfect solution, though. Speed would be an issue and I was going to be limited to whatever wireless security this building possessed. There wouldn’t be time to cobble together anything better.

Devlin was still speaking to Michel on the phone. “If you can figure out a way in, sure, but I don’t think we should even risk the attention. Virginia might get involved, realize that you’re coming up, and start wondering where exactly Sarah disappeared to.” He paused. “Obviously, I can’t do that. Infiltration is my thing and I can’t very well do that if I’m keeping her grandmother distracted.”

I switched from the phone to the tablet. The floor plans weren’t drawn in great detail. I could tell the general shape of the floors upstairs, but not which rooms were located where. The names of each floor’s occupants weren’t listed, either. We could leave the conference room, go up one floor, and walk directly into a security firm. There just wasn’t any to know for sure.

I promise,” Devlin said. “And let her know that we did do this sort of thing before her.”

He tilted his head at the response and a tiny smile appeared on his face.

Well, I wouldn’t say it to her either,” he said, “but it was still worth a try. Go, figure out some plans, in case we need to use them. I’ll be in touch if…well, when things go wrong.”

I waited for Devlin to hang up before I passed the tablet over to him. “What do you think?” I asked.

I think this is a terrible, no good, very bad idea,” Devlin said, “but these floor plans might make it workable. It’d help if I knew who was actually occupying the floors above us.”

I did what I could with what I had.” I knew that he wasn’t taking a shot at me, but I couldn’t quite stop my pride from flaring up.

And it’s better than I could have done on my own,” Devlin replied. “I’m not complaining, I’m just saying. Tell me about this server room?”

What do you want to know?”

Is there any other way to access it, besides breaking into whatever room it’s in?”

Not without leaving tracks,” I said. That wasn’t quite true. I might not leave tracks, but it wasn’t a risk worth taking. The difference was minute enough that I doubted Devlin would care about the details. “The safest way is if I gain physical access.”

He nodded. “If we end up creating a situation, we won’t be able to get back in the building. Security protocols will change and all that.”

I am aware of that. What are you asking?”

Are you sure you can do both things? Find whatever information the Texan is after and dig up the Mouse’s trail?”

If I was right, and Caelum was responsible for the Texan’s intelligence drought, it was definitely a possibility. Of course, in a rush to clear out the server for anything that might be useful, I might also trigger some sort of digital trap, alert the entire building, and inadvertently reveal to my grandmother the very information I was desperately attempting to suppress. Or I might make a dumb mistake – not a common occurrence, but not one that I could completely ignore – and alert Caelum to my intrusion, without actually getting my digital hands on anything I needed.

There were a lot of ways this could go wrong, but there were always a lot of ways things could go wrong. I just needed to bet on pulling off the lone, perfect series of events that gave me what I wanted without making things worse in the long run.

I can do both things,” I said. I hoped my voice didn’t betray my lack of confidence in that statement.

If Devlin saw anything in my face, he kept it to himself. “Alright, then. We’re looking at a few floors, unknown security features, and a server room…whatever that is. Where do we start?”

I took a deep breath and scanned the room.  A few couples were lingering near us, probably waiting for an opportunity to introduce themselves, but the bulk of the party had migrated closer to where I assumed my grandmother was.  She was, after all, the belle of this particular ball. 

 

A distraction right about now would be incredibly useful,” I said.  “Otherwise, someone is going to inevitably stop me before I can slip away and tie me up in some inane conversation.”

I’d planned on making one of those anyway,” Devlin said, “but that obviously won’t work if I’m going with you.”

It didn’t occur to me to suggest that he stay behind.  As much as my technical skills would be necessary to access the server, Devlin’s expertise at infiltration would be equally essential.  More importantly, perhaps, I found that I didn’t want him to stay behind.  Even if I’d had absolute confidence in my ability to sneak through the upper floors of the building without getting the attention of any guards, I would probably have still wanted him to come with me.

Ideas?” I asked.

Devlin furrowed his brow for several moments.   I was intensely aware of each second as it ticked away, but I kept my peace and waited for Devlin’s peculiar mind to offer up a solution to the first of what would most likely end up being many problems.

His eyes lit up when he came to a solution.  “How much of a distraction are we looking for?”

Not enough to get the fundraiser called off,” I said.  “More than just a temporary amusement.  What do you have in mind?”

Devlin winked at me.  “Science,” he said, wiggling his fingers mystically in front of his face.  “If you’ll excuse me?”

He excused himself without waiting for permission to do so.  That left me alone at the table, surrounded by a sea of people waiting to make my acquaintance.  Immediately, I began playing around on the tablet to discourage anyone from approaching. 

There wasn’t much for me to do, aside from speculatively examining floor plans.  Much of what was displayed on my screen wouldn’t be useful and the truly valuable information was deliberately kept secret from the general public.  If we could locate some sort of security hub on the way up to the server room, that would help, but I wasn’t about to start betting on any lucky streaks at the moment.

I’d begun toying with the idea of checking in with Mila and Michel myself when a push notification drew my attention to the tablet’s task bar.  Someone had sent me an email.  Or, more accurately, someone had sent Irene an email.  The routing protocols I used to insulate myself were still active, as far as I knew, which meant it could only be a member of the Community.  No one else knew the address.

Glancing around nervously once more, as if anyone could see or read my email from a few feet away, I cautiously opened up the message and skimmed its contents.  The message written there was short, but no less ominous for its brevity.

Irene,

You can’t trust him.  You can’t trust anyone.

Trust me.

There was no signature at the bottom of the email and, in the ‘sender’ field, someone had only filled in absolute gibberish.  That meant a burner account.  Whoever was trying to contact me didn’t even want me to know their digital identity, which elevated my paranoia to an even more impressive level.

The Community had its problems , its infighting, and its factions.  At least, it had possessed all of those things before Caelum’s apparent rampage through the rank and file.  But, regardless of personal issues, we’d always been able to rely on the certainty of one simple fact: any member of the Community would cheerfully throw themselves in front of a bus – or whatever the online equivalent of that was – if it meant that someone else’s real name would be kept secret.  With that unspoken promise as a base, it had been common practice to be relatively free with our handles, so long as were communicating with other members in good standing.

I wasn’t on the outs with the group.  They probably weren’t thrilled that I’d put a pause on their D-Day plan, but I was still working in our mutual best interests.  If one of the remaining members wanted to impress the seriousness of my situation, they’d wasted their time.  Without identifying themselves, I had no reason to take this email any more seriously than a spam message.

 

Except…except that it had come to one of the accounts I maintained, specifically to stay in contact with the Community.  A random individual wouldn’t have been able to locate that account and, even if the random number god had decided to kick out that combination of letters and numbers, that same random person couldn’t possibly have known what name I’d respond to.

There was a short list of people who knew the address, knew my online handle belonged to it, and knew that I was rapidly approaching the deep, still waters.  The Community members left standing comprised one group.  Frizzle, Gate, and Max would clearly be capable of reaching out.  But they weren’t asking for anything and they hadn’t expressed anything coherent. 

The Mouse was another.  He knew how much danger he was in.  Presumably, he could make the assumption that I was in similar straits.  But what would the point have been to express fear, when he’d already done a perfectly good job of painting a picture of his precarious position, with regards to Caelum and the Magi? 

And Caelum…he was a third and final option that I couldn’t ignore.  If he wanted to, I didn’t doubt that he could find some thin connecting thread between Irene and Sarah Ford.  But why warn me?  Why not just swoop in, sever my connection to the Internet, and take me and the team completely off of the board?  

 

It meant something.  I didn’t know what, but I knew that it meant something.  I added it to the growing pile of questions and moved past it.  Devlin was on his way back.

In his hands, I saw several things.  One: a plain, unmarked glass of a bubbling, clear liquid.  Two: three coasters, gripped between his fingers so that they resembled claws.  Three: a clenched fist, holding something tight and keeping it from sight.

Devlin sat down across from me.  “Can you make sure no one’s looking at me for a second?”

I did a quick sweep, identified a cluster of men in their twenties sneaking furtive glances in my direction, and went with the simplest possible option of capturing their attention.  I yawned, stretching my arms as high as they would go and focused my attention on my exposed shoulders.  I rolled my neck slowly, as well, just in case one of the men held different interests.

Sure enough, it worked.  One of the young men noticed me, then subtly tried to direct his friends’ eyes in my direction.  Men in their twenties were nothing if not predictable.

What I did not see coming was the nearly identical look of slackjawed appreciation that appeared on Devlin’s face.  I resisted the urge to snap my fingers in his face.  “Devlin?  Kind of in a hurry,” I said through clenched teeth.

 

He blinked rapidly.  “Oh!  Oh, uh, yeah.  Lost my train of thought for a moment there.”  He lowered the cup of seltzer water beneath the table, placing it on the floor as close to the center of the table as he could, and opened his clenched fist.  Two circular, chalk-white tablets rested in his palm.  Instantly, I understood. 

Oh, that is clever,” I said appreciatively.

I do what I can,” Devlin replied modestly.  

How long do you think that’ll take?” I asked.

He shrugged a response back at me.  “I failed chemistry,” he said.  “Saw this on an episode of Bill Nye.” 

I was torn between the urge to gape and the desire to laugh.  I split the difference and gave Devlin a disbelieving look.  “We should probably get moving then.”

Yes,” he said, “we really, really should.  I’m late, I’m late, and all that jazz.”

We’re late,” I countered, standing up without waiting for him to pull the chair out for me. 

The two of us walked as casually as we could in the direction of the nearest exit.  Conveniently, it was one of the few ways out of the conference room that wasn’t blocked off by a pop-up bar. We’d covered half the distance, taking great care not to draw attention or to seem unusually skulky, when Devlin’s chemistry experiment paid off.  Alka Seltzer plus seltzer water in an enclosed container was a basic science experiment.  But two extra-strength tablets, combined with an even larger quantity of water in a glass took what should have been a minor pop into a considerably larger production.

The table was too heavy to move, but he hadn’t been planning on knocking anything over.  It was the sound that he’d been after.  A loud hiss of pressurized air escaping its confines followed by a heavy thud as, at its apex, the glass collided with the wooden underpinnings of the table was enough to draw the eye of every guest in the immediate vicinity for at least a few seconds.  Those people who weren’t close enough to actually hear anything still reacted to everyone else. 

It was an odd thing to see.  Every man and woman that I could see turned to look intently at an empty table or to look at people who were looking at an empty table.  But, oddity aside, their distraction gave Devlin and me the seconds we needed to slip, unseen, through the exit.  A staircase led up to the floor above, the first of at least four floors that we’d have to traverse in the next hour or so.

I turned to Devlin and saw the wolfish smile on his face that I’d expected.  I met his grin with one of my own.

After you?”  He dipped his head and gestured extravagantly with one hand.

I inclined my head slightly in courtly appreciation.  “Don’t mind if I do, good sir.” 

The two of us hurried upstairs and, for maybe an instant or two, I was having too much fun to worry about much of anything at all.

Chapter 42

The Texan looked much the same as he’d appeared at the Green Light Gala: swaggering, cocky, and utterly at ease in his incongruous outfit. It shouldn’t have been possible to pull off the combination of a traditional black suit with cowboy boots and a string tie, but he made it work. He settled into place across from Devlin and me, shot me an insouciant wink, and assumed an air of patience. The message was clear: your move.

Devlin gave it a few seconds before he spoke. “We’ve got some time to kill,” he said. “So, sure, why not? I guess you finished up your business in London?”

I noticed that he’d dropped the feigned accent and, instead, had slipped into using a more menacing baritone. His voice wasn’t openly threatening, but the shadow of a threat existed in the ominous pauses and the deliberately slower pace of his words.

Had my business finished for me,” the Texan replied. He showed Devlin his teeth. “Was a bit of a dust-up in the local scene, if you catch my drift.”

We heard about that. Something to do with the drug lord in the area, wasn’t it?”

The Texan revealed a few more teeth. “That’s a fair way of putting it.”

The general noise of the fundraiser faded away in the background, leaving only the intense silence between the three of us at the table. In that vacuum of sound, my thoughts sped from one connection to another. The Texan had seen us at the Gala, so there was no point in claiming complete ignorance. He knew that we were members of the criminal underworld and he could assume that we had enough clout to garner an invitation to the Gala. He also knew that we’d been after information about Avis; after all, he’d been the one to give us her location to begin with.

Could he also know that my team was responsible for the major disruptions to the Magi’s business interests? And, if he did, what did he plan to do with that information?

A moment later, an even more horrifying fact presented itself: he knew who I was. Regardless of our campaign against the Magi, the Texan knew with absolute certainty that Sarah Ford was a criminal. Granted, he couldn’t know the exact nature of my contribution – at least my online identity was safe, for the moment – but my alternative employment was a valuable nugget of information, all on its own. Even a single hint about my partnership with Devlin might be all the Magi needed to suss out my real identity; from there, it was a short hop to fire, blood, and devastation.

There wasn’t a way to ask him what he knew, however, without tipping my hand. With no idea springing readily to mind, I elected to stay quiet. Devlin was better in situations like this, anyway.

Last I saw y’all,” the Texan said, after a pause that seemed to last for an eternity, “you had that pretty Mexican girl with you. What happened to her?”

Pretty sure that she wasn’t actually Mexican,” Devlin said, stressing the word just a little bit.

The Texan shrugged. “Where I’m from, most times you see someone looks like her, Mexican’s the best guess. I don’t mean no offense by it, though.”

None taken.”

So?” The Texan leaned his forearms onto the table, exposing a pair of gunmetal gray cufflinks at his wrists. “It’s just the two of you out on the town tonight?”

She was a short-term hire,” Devlin lied. “I could probably get in touch with her, if you were thinking about hiring some protection.”

The Texan threw back his head and laughed. “Protection? Me? Nobody with any sense wants to bother with little ole me.”

Someone with your secrets ought to be in a lot of danger, don’t you think?”

Somebody who knows less than me, sure,” the Texan said amiably. “But me? I know just enough that nobody likes me, but everybody wants to make sure I’m close at hand.”

What’re you doing here?” I asked. Devlin’s mouth was partly open, as if he’d been about to speak; when he heard my voice, he leaned back in his chair and gave me the floor without comment.

Well, Miss Ford,” the Texan said, making certain that I understood his implication, “I happen to care a great deal about the well-being of these poor, innocent babies and I just could not abide letting them go another day without proper care. That’s why you got all dolled up and came out, isn’t it?”

I put on my best scowl. The effect was probably spoiled by my frizzy hair and evening wear, but there wasn’t anything to do about that. “You deal in information. That’s your whole thing. Fine. What’s it going to take for you to keep what you know to yourself? Pretty sure that’s why you came over in the first place.”

The Texan placed a hand over his heart in mock injury. When I didn’t give him a reaction, he allowed the cocky smile to drain from his face. “I’m not your enemy,” he said. “I hope you understand that. If I wanted to make things difficult for you, I’d have done it already.”

Oh?”

That’s right. See, it turns out that a group of thieves a lot like you, your boyfriend, and your bodyguard have been going around have been stirring up trouble. Started up while y’all were in London, but it didn’t stop there. A lot of folk have been out there asking questions, but no one seems to got any answers. Now, let me ask you a question: you know anything about that?”

I tried to keep my expression as neutral as possible. The Texan narrowed his eyes for a few seconds, then smiled slightly.

Aha,” the Texan said. He leaned back in his chair, almost an exact mirror to Devlin. “You got a bad poker face. Ought to work on that.”

Say you’re right,” Devlin said. “Say that we’ve been involved in some…ambitious projects overseas. What’s that have to do with you?”

Personally? Not a damn thing. Professionally, though? I make a living trading in knowledge. Figuring out why you’re hitting the businesses you’re going after would be worth a lot.”

I coughed into a napkin to hide whatever microexpression the Texan had been able to read before. If he thought that we were attacking businesses at random, then he wasn’t privy to the Magi’s existence or their involvement in the enterprises we’d overthrown. That was…something, at least.

Not an option,” Devlin said.

The Texan sighed. “Shame. Suppose I’ll just have to make due with secondary options, then.”

You still haven’t answered Miss Ford’s question. What’s it going to take to keep you quiet?”

Way I see it, you’ve got a couple of options.” The Texan held out his hand, four fingers and a thumb extended. “One: you could try to take me out of play before any other interested party decides to start asking me questions.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That seems like a strange offer for you to start with.”

I’m not in the business of lying to myself,” he said. “Always a chance you’ll decide to send your friend after me one night soon. Not much I can do about that.”

So,” I asked casually, “what’s stopping me from doing that?”

Devlin’s eyes flickered in my direction and his lips became a thin line. He stayed quiet, though. Obviously, I wasn’t going to give Mila an order to kill someone, simply because they happened to know some dangerous information. For one thing, I wasn’t even sure that was the type of order she’d follow. For another, I was absolutely sure that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who broke out lethal force whenever I was in danger.

The Texan, however, didn’t know either of those facts.

‘sides my good looks and winning charm?”

I ignored his casual flirtation. “Unless you came here looking specifically for us, you can’t have told anyone else about us being here. So you’re the only person who knows about my…other job.”

You think I tell anybody else what I know? I only trust one person with my secrets and you’re looking at him.”

You’re doing a really bad job of convincing us to let you leave here,” I said.

I’m not trying to convince you of anything,” the Texan said, “except that I’m a resource. I don’t got a dog in whatever fight you’re picking. Either I can hurt you or I can help you. Or I can stay out of it entirely. How this plays out is up to you. Excuse me for a second; I’ll give the two of you a sec to talk this over. I’m feeling a little bit parched.”

He pushed away from the chair and walked across the room to the bar, utterly at ease. He didn’t even look over his shoulder.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Devlin leaned in and spoke in a harsh whisper. “I can make a scene,” he said. “Pick a fight or something, so that you can slip away. How long will it take you to get us a flight out of here?”

I can’t do that, Dev,” I whispered back. “He’s right and you know it. As long as he knows who I am and what I do, I’ll always be at risk of someone else finding out. It’ll only take one whisper into the wrong person’s ear before the whole thing starts unraveling.”

What do you want to do, then?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose in thought for a few seconds. “He said it can go a couple of ways. We’re obviously not going to have him killed.” The moment the last word passed my lips, I wondered which version of Devlin I was speaking to. The cold, clinical Devlin might very well think that murder was a viable method of dealing with his problems. He wouldn’t have gone that far before prison, but now…now, I wasn’t sure.

Obviously,” Devlin said.

I allowed myself a minor sigh of relief. “What do you think the other options are?”

Payment is definitely one,” Devlin said. “The Lady would foot whatever bill he could come up with in a heartbeat if we could convince her that he could expose us.”

I thought that over. It was a possibility with merit. “No,” I said slowly. “No, that wouldn’t work. She used him to get us the information about Avis, so she’s familiar with him, but I’m also sure that she’d just have her pet giant snuff him out on general principle.”

Which we don’t want, because he might be useful in the future. So we can’t tell the Lady about this. Fine.” Devlin pursed his lips. “Maybe some sort of trade would work?”

I shook my head. “That’s a nonstarter. What information do we have to offer him that he doesn’t already know?”

He thinks we’re a rogue group,” Devlin said. “So he doesn’t know about the connection between our targets and the Magi. Presumably, he doesn’t know about the Magi at all.”

I shook my head. “He doesn’t know what this information could be worth. I’m not inclined to give him even the vaguest hint. The last thing we need is him running off to someone connected and finding himself on the wrong end of some enhanced interrogation.”

Devlin frowned, but said nothing.

That’s three.” I held up a corresponding number of fingers. “What are the last two?”

Devlin hesitated before answering. “You could come clean to the people who matter,” he said finally. “If you gave up your identity as Sarah Ford and went entirely into the underworld, the fact that you lived a double life would be irrelevant.”

No!”

I half-shouted the negation instantly, without even pausing for deliberate thought. A few of the fundraiser’s guests turned to look at me, unasked questions apparent on their faces. I waved them away with a half-smile.

No,” I repeated in a whisper, when our observers found more interesting things to occupy their attention. “That’s not an option. What’s the fifth choice?”

Devlin opened his mouth to answer, but didn’t say a word. His eyes flicked up, over my shoulder, just before the Texan walked back into view and returned to his seat. He pushed two full shot glasses to our side of the table.

The fifth option,” he said, “is probably the simplest, all things considered.”

It took me a moment to rebuild my neutral expression. I wasn’t sure if it was all that believable – he’d already demonstrated an ability to read me, even when I was trying to hide my feelings – but the exercise helped to bring my emotions under control. I didn’t know why I’d reacted so violently to Devlin earlier. He hadn’t been suggesting that I submerge myself in the criminal underworld, just adding it to the list of possible solutions. Yet I’d felt compelled to shout the idea down without even a moment of consideration.

Another thing to add to the pile of issues I needed to sort through, I supposed.

And what is that?” Devlin asked, while I composed myself.

I know you aren’t…well, for lack of a better word, let’s go with players. I’m on speaking terms with most of the big name movers and shakers in the game and I’m at least aware of all the rest. Hell, most owe me a favor, in one way or another.”

You’re calling us pawns, then?”

The Texan shook his head. “Not if you’re gonna take it the wrong way, I’m not. I think you’re closer to me, in the grand scheme of things. Not players, not pawns, but…contractors. That sound about right?”

Devlin looked at me for an answer. It was my real identity at risk, after all. From the first job he’d been a part of, Devlin hadn’t really been a part of legal society. He had a name and a social security number, of course; they just weren’t connected in any real way to his actual life. If he needed to, he could probably change his name and go on living his life without any real changes. I had more at stake and, appropriately, he was leaving it to me to decide how much information to reveal.

The grand secret was already out, though, revealed through nothing more than a moment of incredibly bad luck. A few details, here or there, wouldn’t make things much worse. “Let’s go with that,” I said. “What about it?”

Well, I personally believe that people in our field have to operate by a code,” the Texan said. “That’s all we got, when you think about it. Just our names and our word. Lose one of those and who are you, really?”

That was certainly an ominous turn of phrase. “So, what then? We both just walk away and keep each other’s secrets?”

The Texan chuckled. “Not quite. I don’t think I’ve got quite as much skin in the game as you do, if you don’t mind me saying so. No, what I’m thinking is this: you’re contractors. I want to offer you a contract.”

I raised an eyebrow. “To do what?”

As much as I care about the welfare of poor children,” the Texan said, “I had other motivations for attending this little shindig. There’s been a trail of suspicious of activity in some of my channels lately. Sources drying up or going dark without warning; digital dead-ends; data caches being mysteriously wiped up. That sort of thing. Anyway, I followed that trail here and tonight seemed like the best time to make an appearance.”

You’re an information dealer,” Devlin said. “People tell you things; you don’t go looking for secrets.”

I’m a man of many talents,” the Texan replied. “None of which, unfortunately, involve breaking and entering. Although, I suppose it wouldn’t really be breaking and entering if the building’s got your name on it, would it?”

Oh shit.

The Texan kept speaking. “I’ll make you a deal. You help me get the information I’m looking for, so I can zero out this problem, and I’ll conveniently forget exactly who did the job for me. A simple transaction, just how I like ’em. Who knows: maybe this could be the start of a profitable relationship for the three of us?”

I thought about the field of play and allowed the potential outcomes to play out in my mind. The Texan could leave the fundraiser without the object of his search. It was even possible that no one would directly ask him anything about us. It wasn’t like many people in the underworld would bother specifically asking whether or not Sarah Ford was a thief. But it wasn’t a certainty. The slim margin of doubt could mean the difference between success and a miserable death. It’d be a lot easier to track Sarah Ford than a random French cabdriver, a bodyguard whose real name I still didn’t know, or a thief who had effectively disappeared from the public eye almost twenty years ago.

Or we could take on this job and, without any planning and only half of the team present, attempt to find actionable intelligence on whoever was breaking into the Texan’s whisper network. I was almost certain that Caelum was responsible, so that wasn’t a question that needed answering, but we’d only come to Atlanta in order to run down the Mouse’s location. Actively searching for Caelum might be all he or she needed to turn his malevolent, digital eye in our direction.

Neither option was great, but one was demonstrably worse. I couldn’t put the rest of the team at risk because of my real identity. I wouldn’t do that.

I reached across the table and picked up one of the shot glasses. “Let’s drink to it, then?”

Chapter 41

The last time I’d visited, the original offices of Ford Enterprises had taken up at least ten floors of the Sovereign, from the 11th floor to the 21st, but it had only expanded since then.  Even though it was no longer the beating heart of the business empire – that honor had been split up and passed to the offices run by professional CEOs in various locations around the country – the original offices had always held a specific place in my family’s collective hearts.  This had been where the business had first taken root, where my grandparents had dug their heels in and carved out a place for themselves, and they had always treated it as hallowed ground.  No real decisions passed through the halls anymore, but it was still a place of prestige. 

At this time of night, the other offices in the Sovereign were closed.  The only visible lights I could see, just before we pulled into the underground parking garage, came from a band of illuminated windows comprising about two floors.  That would be the fundraiser, located in the converted conference room.  It was a lucky streak that no one else in the Ford offices or in the building, as a whole, had been tasked to work late.  Dealing with bleary-eyed computer operators and interns wouldn’t have been a gamebreaker, but there wasn’t any reason to look down on a windfall that would probably make things easier, either. 

Our driver pulled into a parking spot and switched the car off, then exited and opened the door to allow my grandmother and me to step out of the vehicle.  Devlin and CJ joined us ladies and the four of us made our way over to the elevator.

It almost felt normal.  Before I’d decided to pursue a less-than-legal lifestyle, I’d attended any number of fundraising dinners and charity balls with an assortment of perfectly functional, yet fundamentally boring gentleman callers.  It had been expected that, as a nominally public figure, I would eventually find someone suitable to marry so that I could pop out babies and continue the family name.  My own opinions on the matter hadn’t ever seemed to interfere with the plans of my parents and grandparents.

That hadn’t been pleasant, for obvious reasons, but it hadn’t taken any of the allure away from formal events like this.  I enjoyed getting dressed up in fancy clothes that I couldn’t reasonably just wear out on the streets.  There hadn’t been many opportunities for me to indulge in that side of my personality since the Lady’s manipulations had forced us to go on the run.  So, even though I’d only agreed to attend this particular fundraiser to case the building for a later excursion, I wasn’t going to put up too much of a fight about the circumstances said casing would be happening under.

So,” Devlin said, while we waited for the elevator to make its way back down to us.  “Can you tell us a bit about what exactly we’re raising money for?  I know that it’s for Sarah’s sister and some cause she’s championing but, aside from that, she’s been a little light on the details.”

Virginia checked the time on her phone before responding.  “Well, you know what her sister actually does for a living, don’t you?”

She’s a surgeon of some kind, unless I’m getting it horribly wrong.”

That’s about as much as I can understand,” Virginia said.  “Not so much with the actual surgery nowadays, but she’s still got the skills from what I hear.”

Pediatrics,” I offered.  “At least, that’s what she was specializing in the last time we spoke.  She might have changed her mind, honestly, or just decided to go with something else.”

Ah, yes, that’s what it was.”  Virginia beamed at me.  “Anyway, she decided to step back from the ER a couple years back so that she could devote more of her attention to the administrative side of things.  She was always good at that.  Getting donors to provide the money to upgrade the facilities, seeing to it that there weren’t little babies waiting for treatment, that kind of thing.  Makes sense when you think about it.”

Why’s that?” Devlin asked.

Virginia opened her mouth to respond, visibly thought better of it, and changed the topic in an instant.  If I could read the blatant microexpressions on her face, then Devlin surely could.  He said nothing about it, though.  His cover identity probably wouldn’t be a master of nonverbal communication and, even if the cover ID was skilled in that area, it was still within reason that he’d want to keep those abilities secret for as long as possible. 

She’s always had a soft spot for ‘em,” Virginia said.  

That was true, as far as I remembered.  Virginia just wasn’t telling the whole truth.  But who was I to judge someone for a little bit of deliberate obfuscation? 

The elevator arrived and we stepped inside.  Devlin didn’t speak again until we were headed up to the Tower’s fifteenth floor.  “So, this fundraiser is for the hospital?”

Virginia shook her head.  “No, no!  Well, not really.  See, there’s a lot of babies and teenagers that aren’t close enough to her hospital to get the care they’re looking for.”

Not close enough,” I said darkly, “or not rich enough.”

Maybe a little bit of that, too,” Virginia said.  She didn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed by the change in my mood.  Perhaps she knew me better than to take the bait or perhaps she was simply wrapped up in her story.  “We all decided – your mother and your father too, Sarah – that the best thing we could do for them would to be to establish a foundation that works toward building or funding hospitals inside their communities.  That way, even after we’re gone, they won’t be plain out of luck.”

That’s a noble thing she’s doing,” Devlin said.  “Using her abilities to help the people who can’t help themselves, I mean.  Not a lot of people who’d go out on a limb like that for people they don’t even know.”

I was careful to keep my eye-roll small enough that only Devlin would notice it.  Flattery , however veiled it might be, worked under almost any circumstance, so I nudged him with my hip and pretended that the elevator had simply jostled us together.

I think so,” Virginia said back with a slightly raised eyebrow.  “If I didn’t, you think I’d have squeezed myself into this dress and dragged my wrinkled behind back to the offices?”

Devlin offered her a warm smile.  “Your wrinkled behind,” he said gently, “would not have missed this for the world, would it?”

Virginia returned his smile, though hers was a little more mischievous than his.  “I think I like you, Mr. Devlin.”

CJ cleared his throat twice, louder than the confined space necessitated.  The three of us turned away from our conversation to face him.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Just got a little tickle in my throat, is all.”

Virginia took his hand in hers and patted him on the cheek.  “You’ll be alright, won’t you?”

Yes ma’am,” CJ said immediately.  He stood up straighter and lifted his chin an inch or two.  “Of course.  I didn’t mean to interrupt your conversation.”

You’re my date,” Virginia said, “not my professional escort.  You can relax, unless you’d rather keep walking around like you’ve got a stick up your butt.”

CJ stared at her, openmouthed as if he couldn’t quite believe those words had passed my stately grandmother’s lips, but he eventually got himself back under control.  He nodded once, and the gesture was tight and controlled.  The second time he nodded, though, it seemed far more natural.  Not quite perfect, but better than before. 

I couldn’t help but think about Mila, in the moment.  For someone who was technically in our employ – or in the Lady’s, but the lines weren’t likely to ever be perfectly clear – she’d never bothered with decorum or awkwardness.  I supposed there were benefits to a little bit of emotional space.

The elevator dinged to let us know we’d arrived and a subtle wave passed through us all.  Virginia seemed to gather herself up, preparing herself for an evening battling with skinflints and penny-pinchers, while still remaining the epitome of grace and elegance.  CJ immediately retreated back into himself; not as much as on the ride up, or during the car ride over, but enough that the hungry sharks of high society would sense weakness from a mile away. 

Devlin noticed the taut muscles on CJ’s body at the same time I did.  He put a hand on the man’s shoulder and flashed his most brilliant grin.  “You’ll have to help me out here, alright?  New guy in town, all sorts of new people to deal with.  I’ll bet you know your way around these types just fine.”

CJ’s shoulders came up slightly, then dropped.  “I know a few of them,” he said weakly.

A few more than me, then!”  Devlin clapped CJ on the back.  “So we’ll just have to figure out a way to get through the rest of them, won’t we?”

CJ responded with a thin, watery smile.  It was the most emotion I’d seen him, aside from fear or anxiety, since I’d caught him openly staring at Virginia.

The elevator doors slid open and the four of us stepped out into the fundraiser.  CJ held out his hand, palm up, and Virginia laid her hand to rest there. Devlin created a space between his elbow and his side that I could slip my arm through. 

My sister and I had a wealth of issues, but I’d never been one to deny objective fact.  The woman could decorate.  The oversized conference room I could just barely remember had been transformed into a lavish, fairytale ballroom.  There was plenty of room overhead and streamers and balloons populated the air above our heads.  At eye level, a wealth of tables stretched out from the elevator clear to the other side of the room, stopping just shy of a portable speaking dais that had been installed at the far end. 

If it weren’t for the adults in expensive, tailored suits smiling empty smiles at each other and jostling for social position with a dozen minor maneuvers, I would have immediately equated the conference room to the secret lair of the Urchins.  It had the same feeling of fevered whispers and hive mentality. As it was, however, I was more reminded of the Green Light gala in London.  The people here were probably only arranging to take advantage of tax shelters or seeking positions on the board of one charity or another, though, while the people at the Green Light gala had been possessed of more sinister goals.

Of course, I’d attended that particular gala, and I hadn’t done so for strictly altruistic reasons.  Morally, it was a thin line to walk.

Almost as soon as the elevator doors shut behind us, people noticed our arrival.  Those standing closest to us broke off from their conversations, in order to offer my grandmother lavish greetings.  When they realized that there were two Fords in attendance, instead of just the one they’d expected and presumably prepared for, a wealth of bland greetings and well wishes came my way as well.  I accepted, deflected, and parried each pleasantry with an unconscious ease.  One of the first things I’d learned from my parents was the ability to appear interested in conversation, without actually paying attention to it, after all.

Devlin and CJ passed beneath everyone’s notice.  For Devlin’s part, I imagined that he’d found a way to subconsciously make himself beneath notice.  I couldn’t imagine how he’d done it, but it was within the realm of possibility.  For CJ, however, the benign neglect he endured was just a natural side-effect of his demeanor and relative namelessness.  In the minds of the fundraiser’s guests, there would be plenty of time to fish for information on the pair escorting the two Ford women into their party after they’d properly flattered the Ford women themselves.

As much as I appreciated the return to high society, I could have done without the sycophants.  Virginia, on the other hand, seemed to swell under the attention.  She returned a warm greeting to everyone who offered one to her, shook each outstretched hand, and kissed cheeks.  In her wake, we made our way through the room, pausing only when we reached a table near the speaking dais at the front of the room.

A table tent had been embroidered with Virginia’s full name and placed at the center of the table.  Virginia picked a spot and allowed CJ to pull her chair out for her before taking a seat.  Devlin lifted an eyebrow behind the man’s back but he did the exact same thing for me a moment later.

Were you expecting other people?” I asked, carefully maintaining a polite smile as I talked through my teeth.

Why, Sarah,” Virginia said, “I’ve got you and your new friend as company.  Who else could I possibly want to spend time with?”

I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic.  I also didn’t particularly care to find out.  “That’s for you?” I asked, gesturing at the dais.

Virginia sighed and allowed her thousand watt smile to dim slightly.  “You’d think that your sister would’ve been happy enough to even get me here, but no.”  She dragged out the last syllable until I chuckled at her ridiculousness.

Do you already have something written?”

She shook her head.  “I’m an old woman who ought to be in bed already,” she said.  “If I just climb up there and repeat the same word for twenty minutes, they’ll still empty out their pockets and pat themselves on the back for it.”

For all the good it’ll do,” I muttered. 

What was that?”

Nothing, nothing.”  I waved a hand dismissively in front of my face.  “When are you giving your speech?”

Virginia removed a slim cell phone from her purse and checked the time.  “An hour, give or take.  Enough time to grease the pump a little bit more, I guess.  CJ?”

CJ pushed his chair away from the table and offered Virginia his assistance.  Leaning heavily on him – a little more heavily than she seemed to need, I noticed – my grandmother got back to her feet.

You’re just leaving us here by ourselves?”  I protested, mainly for appearances.  If Virginia needed to butter up the local philanthropists for an hour, before giving a twenty minute speech, I had a hard deadline to work under.  Scouting wasn’t difficult work, but it never paid to rush any part of a job.  It would only take one missed camera to set us on our heels, after all.

The two of you’ll just have to find something to entertain yourselves with, won’t you?”  She patted CJ on the shoulder.  “I’ll need him to help me get around, unfortunately.  Now, I think I see Veronica Argent over there, if you’d be so kind, CJ.”

Dutifully, CJ allowed Virginia to lean some of her weight on him and the two of them walked off together like that, heads tilted towards each other like they were sharing some secret.

Well,” Devlin said, when they were safely out of earshot.  “They’re not even trying to be subtle about that, are they?”

What?” 

Your grandmother and CJ,” he clarified.  “You don’t see it?”

See what, Dev?”

They’re…”  He paused, considered his words, and started over.  “If they aren’t involved, Sarah, they’re certainly on the way to it.”

I blinked, mentally flashing through the oddness of the interactions between Virginia and CJ over the past twelve hours or so.  Now that Devlin had said it, I couldn’t help but see all of the obvious markers.  The way they kept checking each other out; the fact that she’d pressured me into accompanying her, when she’d apparently already ordered a suit for CJ; hell, he’d been openly appreciating her dress from as far back as the house. 

But she was my grandmother.  Unbidden, my mind attempted to sketch in the details of their relationship and then violently seized up before any images could be offered up.

I squeezed my eyes shut and held out a hand to Devlin, lest he continue speaking and shatter my brain entirely.  “I do not want to talk about that.”

Fair enough,” Devlin said.  I could hear the barely suppressed laugh in his voice.  “Fair enough.  Let’s talk about business, then.  When are you going to make your escape?”

I took another second or two to make sure I’d sealed away any thoughts of my grandmother and CJ before opening my eyes and answering.  “Soon,” I said.  “I’ll probably wait until more people have an opportunity to start circling her and then I’ll slip away.”

How long are you going to be gone?”

I checked the time on my own phone.  “Assuming nothing between here and there is under construction or otherwise off-limits?  Maybe forty minutes, if I want to do a thorough job.  Add in another ten minutes, since I’ll be photographing and recording everything for you to look through later.”

Devlin nodded thoughtfully.  “I can’t help but notice that this plan now leaves me all by myself.”

I reached over and pinched his cheek in the most grandmotherly fashion possible.  “I’m sure you’ll be able to keep yourself busy.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll make a new friend.”

Or,” a drawling voice said from behind me, “maybe you’ll get the chance to catch up with an old one.”

I recognized the voice.  As soon as the softened consonants and the slow, even baritone reached my ears, my blood went ice cold.  My hand fell away from Devlin’s cheek and I turned to get a good look at the newcomer to our table. 

The man was a little over six feet tall, tanned, and muscular in a way that reminded me of swimmers than weight lifters.  He wore a tailored suit, just like everyone else at the fundraiser, but a string tie was knotted around his throat instead of something more traditional.  His eyes, a shade of green eerily reminiscent of new money, glittered with undisguised amusement. 

Or I got another idea,” the Texan said.  He hooked an empty chair with one boot, pulled it out, and dropped unceremoniously into it.  “All three of us can have a little sit-down.  How’s that sound to ya’ll?”

Chapter 40

As a matter of habit, I always carried at least two formal dresses with me wherever I traveled.  In the past few months, there hadn’t really been any opportunities to actually use those dresses – flitting from one country to the next while destabilizing an international criminal conglomerate wasn’t the sort of hobby that lent itself to state dinners – but it still meant that I wasn’t caught completely off-guard by Virginia’s machinations.  

Devlin retired to his room, in order to piece together an outfit from his recently purchased goods, and I disappeared to do the same.  Virginia stayed downstairs in the kitchen, staring out of the back window onto the lawn, sipping from her beverage while we went.

Without any specific details to go off of, I decided to stick with the basics: a long-black evening gown, split up the middle up to my knees, complete with bared shoulders and a borderline indecent neckline.  A pair of strappy wedges I’d acquired somewhere went perfectly with the dress.  When I’d donned my clothing and teased my hair out into something that looked more like a fashion statement and less like a tuft of pipe cleaners, I gave myself a critical examination in a convenient full-length mirror. 

Not bad, Sarah,” I muttered to myself.  My fingers traced along my bare collar bone thoughtfully.  “Shame you don’t have anything sparkly for that little bit of pizzazz, but one does what one can.”

One does just fine, I think,” a male voice said from behind me.

I looked back over my shoulders and favored Devlin with a smoldering grin.  He was only peeking his head through the thin space between the door and the frame.  “You really shouldn’t just walk in on a lady while she’s changing, you know.  I could have been indecent.”

He returned my grin with one of his own, although his was more devilish than charming.  Or it was both.  It had always been difficult to separate the two, where Devlin was concerned.  “You didn’t lock the door,” he said.  “When I pushed on it, I expected it to be locked.  But please, forgive me for my intrusion.”

I winked at him.  It felt natural and easy to do it.  I didn’t like it when the easy rhythm between us was disrupted, and I certainly didn’t like being the reason for that disruption.  The conversation we’d had before my nap still lingered in my head and all of the unanswered questions his accusations had stirred up were still haunting darkened corners of my mind but, for the moment, it was good to just relax and let our conversation flow freely.  There’d be time to sort through my issues after we found the Mouse and contrived some way of taking Caelum out of play.

Mind if I come in?  Or are you planning on changing into something else?”

I pretended to think the question over and then shrugged, elegantly, with only one bare shoulder.  “No, I think this’ll do just fine.”

Devlin pushed the door fully open and stepped into the room.  As he came fully into view, it took all of my effort to keep my eyes from widening.

His other suit, specifically commissioned from our personal favorite tailor, had been cut from a fabric designed to endure a British winter.  In Georgia, Devlin would likely have drowned in his own sweat inside of a half hour while wearing it.  Instead, he’d gone to the store and picked up some lighter weight formal wear, including the suit he wore now.  

The Tom Ford was cut in a way that accentuated muscle while diminishing any unsightly curves or weight gain.  An electric blue tie was knotted at his throat in a classic Windsor, complete with a silver tie clip just above his solar plexus.  On Devlin, what with the muscle he’d put on in prison plus whatever mass he’d picked up under Mila’s tutelage, the effect was striking.  He hadn’t been gone long enough to commission a fully bespoke suit, as was his custom, but I suspected that he’d tipped a tailor to do some last minute alterations before bringing it back to the estate.  If not, then he’d been lucky enough to find a near perfect match for his physique.

Either way, it was a good look.  Good enough that I could only barely stop myself from comparing our appearances in my head.

Look at you,” I managed to say through suddenly dry lips.  “Did someone give you the heads up about this little shindig?”

He shook his head.  “I was actually out to pick up casual wear – light jeans, polo shirts, that kind of thing – when I happened on this store.  The pun was too good to pass up.  Besides, it’s not my money I’m spending, right?”

Which was a fair point to make.  The Lady was subsidizing all of our expenses with only a token attempt to keep track on our spending.  If purchasing a new suit for however much Devlin had spent got us even a millimeter closer to the Magi’s true identities, she would be only too happy to foot the bill.

Devlin closed the door behind him and locked it.  Involuntarily, I felt my breath quicken in my throat.

What are you –“

He put a finger over his lips and walked closer to me.  I turned away from the mirror so that I was facing him as he approached.  He closed the distance between us until there was only a foot or two between us.  We made eye contact and held that contact for what felt like an eternity.  There was something hanging in the air between us and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to acknowledge or ignore it.  I could sense, rather than see, that Devlin was struggling with the same question. 

He made up his mind first when he broke eye contact and spoke in a soft whisper.  “I reached out to Mila and Michel,” he said.

Disappointment – was it disappointment? – welled up from within me, but I pushed it back down and tried to focus on his words.  “And?”

Mila wasn’t able to get her hands on the supplies she wanted, but she’s apparently making due with some other options.  Less permanent options, if you catch my drift?”

It took me a moment, but I did.  I nodded to signify as much.

Michel,” Devlin continued, “is doing a tour of the city so that he can get his head around travel time and whatnot.  Either one of them can be at the Ford building within ten minutes, if we need them.”

It’s a fundraiser, Dev,” I said.  “I don’t think…well, let me not summon the wrath of the thing from on high, but you know what I’m getting at.”

And I told them as much.  She isn’t worried, but Michel is concerned about your cover.”

It was my turn to shake my head.  “Virginia was married for years to a businessman, and they were both inclined to tackle problems without waiting for the other.  She won’t think it’s weird if my fake husband is off somewhere else.  And you were kind enough to give her a valid reason why the two of us would be spending time together.”

The triptych, yes.”  Devlin smiled.  “I was particularly proud of that one.”

I swatted lightly in his direction and he easily dodged the strike.  “Don’t get cocky.”

I make no promises,” he said.  “Anyway, you’re the one who decided we were attending.  Care to share why with…well, it’s a small class, but the metaphor still stands.”

The room we’ll need to break into,” I said, “is five floors above the one where they’re holding the fundraiser.  I’ve got a valid reason to be at that party and I won’t have to actually sign in to any sort of system to enter the building.  Once I’m inside, though, no one’s really going to be looking at me. Virginia does have a tendency to suck up all the oxygen in the room.”

I don’t know about that.”

Don’t know about what?”

Devlin found something interesting in the corner of the room and locked his eyes on it.  “I don’t know that people aren’t going to be looking at you, that’s all.  Maybe in a different dress, or…no, actually, it wouldn’t really matter.  Are you sure you’ll be able to slip away without people following you with their eyes?”

Heat bloomed in my cheeks which, mercifully, weren’t capable of turning red.  “Yes,” I said, with a mixture of emotion that didn’t really belong in this conversation, “yes, I’m sure.  Anyway, I should be able to make up some sort of excuse that’ll get me out of the room long enough to examine what kind of physical security the server room has.  If someone sees me, so what?  I’m a Ford, it’s my family’s building.  I can go back to the party and no one will even think it’s all that strange.”

What am I supposed to do, then?” Devlin asked.

What you normally do.  Schmooze with the muckity-mucks, rub elbows, see if you can find out any information that might be useful to us in the long term.”

Devlin frowned slightly.  “I feel like I should be the one assessing physical security, Sarah.  No offense, but you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

In response, I walked over the dresser, dug around for a bit, and withdrew one of the miniature cameras I’d held onto.  “Which is why,” I said, “you’re going to be able to look over the footage later.”

Devlin had the good graces to look a little sheepish.  “I’m big enough to admit that I hadn’t thought about that.”  He paused.  “Oh!  I almost forgot.”

He rushed out of the room before I could ask him exactly what had slipped his mind and returned a moment later with a black velvet box.

Devlin,” I said slowly, “what is that?”

With no small amount of fanfare, he opened the box to reveal a brilliant blue gemstone set in a sort of golden harness.  The harness twined up into an unbroken long golden string.  In the electric light shining down from above, the gemstone glimmered and shone.

I opened my mouth to say something but my throat was too dry to form coherent sounds.  I swallowed, tried again, and found marginally more success.  “What is…what is this?”

Well, the guy behind the counter told me it was a necklace,” Devlin said, “but judging from your reaction, I feel like I should go get a refund.”

His flippant attitude helped me to get my figurative feet underneath me.  “You know what I mean, Dev.”

I wasn’t being fair to you earlier,” he said.  “I know that you’ve got issues that I don’t.  You know, family things.  So I thought I’d get you a little something to make up for it.”

A part of me wanted to tell him that he hadn’t been unfair, that he’d raised some valid questions that I needed to ask myself.  But voicing those thoughts would’ve raised other questions I’d been trying to avoid and this wasn’t the time.  I wasn’t honestly sure if it would ever be the right time, but now certainly wasn’t.  So I buried that part of myself as deep as I could and focused on finding an appropriate quip.

Well,” I said finally, “as long as we’re spending other people’s money.”

He gave me a strange look that I couldn’t read.  “This one,” he said, “I bought out of my own funds.  What good is an apology that someone else paid for?”

If my grandmother hadn’t chosen that exact moment to call to us from downstairs, I don’t know what I could possibly have said in response.  Maybe it would have been something lighthearted enough to get the two of us away from the dangerous ground we were currently treading on.  Or maybe those feelings I was trying to ignore – the feelings that threatened to pull me down everytime Devlin did or said something unexpectedly sweet – would have finally grown strong enough to have a voice of their own.

But she did call to us.  So what I actually said was easier to bear and infinitely more professional.  “That’s our cue,” I said.  “If you’d be so kind?”

Devlin nodded and stepped behind me to drape the necklace in place.  The gemstone rested against my sternum, just above my breasts, as if he’d taken me to the store and sized it with me standing there.

Do you like it?”

I swallowed down a lump of nervousness before answering.  “I can’t help but notice,” I said, “that it matches your tie perfectly.”

He shrugged a little too casually.  “Strange how that worked out, isn’t it?”

I smiled at him and he gave my shoulder a brief squeeze.  Then, without waiting for me to say anything else, he stepped away and left the room.

I spent another few seconds staring at my reflection in the mirror.  The necklace wasn’t the sort of thing I would normally wear, but it was exactly the kind of thing that Devlin would immediately fall in love with.  For a long-time art thief, he had surprisingly mundane taste in jewelry.  He never selected gaudy works, festooned with diamonds or elaborate filigree.  His tastes ran more in the direction of simple, unique pieces that stood out for their simple beauty.  Even the engagement ring he’d given me so many years ago had been an unremarkable polished green gemstone, fixed into a plain silver setting. 

But it had been from him and I’d loved it, just as I already loved this new gift.

My grandmother called for me again.  I slipped the miniature camera into one of my handbags and deliberated momentarily over what else I should bring with me.  Habit and prudence won out over my better angels.  I added the encrypted cell phone I used for jobs to the handbag, as well as two flash drives and a USB cable. 

All things being equal, it was probably better to be safe than sorry.  I hadn’t yet gone wrong by being too paranoid.

With all that packed up, I gave myself one last examination in the mirror before I gathered my things and headed down to the house’s main entrance. Devlin was leaning against the railing at the bottom of the stairs, one leg crossed at the ankle in front of another, engaged in a conversation with someone I couldn’t see.  When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I was surprised to find the guard from before, CJ, fiddling with the cuffs of a very expensive looking suit of his own.

When CJ saw me, he immediately stood up straighter and reached up to remove the hat he wasn’t actually wearing.  “Oh, uh, Miss Ford!”  His voice squeaked, like he’d just hit the worst part of puberty, and I smothered the urge to laugh.  “You look very lovely, ma’am.  That’s a very striking necklace you’ve got on.”

Oh, this old thing?”  I affected an impersonation of a Southern belle.  “You’re too kind.  And, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you all dressed up?”

Virginia entered the foyer from one of the side rooms, gesturing extravagantly as she spoke.  “You didn’t think I expect you to stay by my side all night, did you?”

My grandmother stepped into view and twirled like a little girl, allowing her deep red dress to twirl around her feet.  It tightened around the midsection and bust, giving her the appearance of a much younger – which was to say, bustier – woman than she actually was.  She’d curled her hair and done up her makeup, too.  The total effect wiped away at least thirty years from her face, if not more.

Look at you,” Virginia said.  She hurried to give me the grandmotherly once-over.  “You could afford to show a little more skin, I think, but otherwise I am impressed, Sarah!”

And you,” I countered, “are showing a little too much skin, aren’t you?”

Virginia waggled a finger at me.  “When you’ve been around as long as I have, you learn to work with whatever you’ve got left.  Besides, I don’t get the chance to make the boys go a little crazy all that much anymore, now do I?”

I started to respond, but my brain picked that moment to put two and two together.  I looked back at CJ who was openly staring at my grandmother. When he noticed my attention, he jerked his eyes away and muttered something vaguely apologetic under his breath.

Is he your actual date, then?” I asked, tilting my head in CJ’s direction.

Well, I don’t trust just anybody,” Virginia said.  “CJ’s been here for a long time and I know that he knows where to keep his hands.  Don’t you, CJ?”

Uh, yes ma’am,” CJ said, still not looking up.

Now!”  Virginia clapped her hands sharply together.  “We have a car waiting outside.  People to see, wallets to empty.  Your sister’s fundraiser isn’t going to fundraise for itself, will it?”

I rolled my eyes.  I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with this new, energetic, warm Virginia Ford, but I wasn’t exactly against it, either.  “I guess not.”

Scoot, then!”  Virginia put action to her words and actually started to push me from behind with one hand.  With her other, she nudged Devlin from his post and closer to the door.  Our shoulders bumped together as she shoved us toward the door.

She’d picked a car that didn’t quite have enough room for the four of us.  CJ sat next to her, leaving a respectable amount of distance, which forced Devlin and I into closer proximity than we might otherwise have chosen.  It wasn’t an uncomfortable fit by any means, but it took a bit of effort to make sure that our hands weren’t brushing together every time the car turned too quickly or hit a bump.

A bit of effort that I might not have always undertaken.  Devlin, bless his heart, didn’t seem to mind.   

Chapter 39

I woke up on top of the covers, still fully dressed. It had been early afternoon when I’d laid down; now, I could see the sun slowly dipping beneath the horizon through the window I faced.

How long was I out?” I asked, before I realized that the room was empty.

Bleary-eyed and groggy, I forced myself to sit upright and survey my lodgings. Michel’s luggage lay open and empty by the door, in almost the exact same position they’d been in before, but he was nowhere to be found. A single sheet of paper rested atop one of his trunks. It took me a few seconds to haul myself up and a few more seconds to make my way across the room to the note. Michel’s handwriting was filled with extravagant loops and exaggerated letters but it was perfectly legible…after a brief moment where I had to pause and gather my wits from the foggy depths of my mind.

Sarah,

We decided that you needed to sleep. Mila and I are exploring the city. She might have some friends in the area that could provide some help. Devlin went to reach out to the client and anyone else who might be able to point him in the right direction. Our phones are on, if you need us.

He hadn’t bothered to sign the note. The coded language was a nice touch, I had to admit. Mila’s “friends” were probably weapons brokers. Even though she claimed never to have been in Atlanta on business, that didn’t mean there weren’t lines of inquiry available to her. Why she’d taken Michel, of all people, was an entirely different question that I didn’t currently possess the faculties to parse.

The “client” was, of course, the Lady; the “anyone else” probably referred to the local underworld. I only possessed surface knowledge of Atlanta’s criminal hierarchy. Whenever I’d been forced to stay in or around my grandmother’s place, I generally kept to myself. Sure, the occasional network intrusion or redistribution of funds might have taken place – just to stave off the boredom, really – but I’d never attempted to pull off any grand heists in the area. The possibility of attracting the wrong kind of attention was simply too high. At the time, I’d been working with the barest margin of safety; really, anyone suitably motivated could have easily connected my real identity with my online one, back in those early days. I hadn’t even used two-factor authorization, for Christ’s sake.

I tossed the note into the trash can and began searching for something to change into: specifically, a comfortable pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt with four Disney princesses on it. Even with the Community’s deadline hanging over my head, there wasn’t any chance of us attempting an infiltration of the Ford building with only a few hours worth of notification. As such, I doubted that I’d be going out again. If I did end up having to leave the house, I could always shower and put on something more comfortable.

The fact that Devlin had always been a big fan of that particular shirt had nothing to do with my decision to wear it. At least, I was fairly sure that it didn’t.

I was only slightly more aware of my surroundings by the time I finished. Judging from the dying light, it was too late for normal people to drink coffee and caffeine had always played merry havoc with my sleep cycle. That being said, I had an ungodly amount of work to do and precious little time in which to do it. It didn’t take me long to decide that coffee, and all of its side effects, was just a physical necessity at that point.

I made my way downstairs and found Virginia standing in the kitchen, staring out over the back lawn through a sliding glass window. She wore a long white bathrobe, tied into a tight knot behind her back. She wasn’t speaking – wasn’t even moving – and she showed no no sign that she’d even noticed my entrance.

Virginia?”

She jerked in surprise and almost spilled whatever beverage she was drinking. “Lordy,” she said, when she’d had a chance to compose herself, “you snuck up on me, Sarah. Can’t be doing that to a woman of my age. No telling what could happen.”

I hadn’t intended to be particularly stealthy. “Sorry. I think that’s just a bad habit I picked up…you know, somewhere. Around.”

While you’ve been out there, hunting down art work for people, you mean?” A tiny grin worked its way across Virginia’s lips. “Do your parents know what you’ve been doing?”

I shook my head. “Why would they? Ever since I decided I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps, they’ve been pretty content to leave me to my own devices.”

Virginia’s grin faded. “Sarah,” she began.

I recognized a chiding tone when I heard one. Even though it had been hours since I’d spoken with Devlin, I still wasn’t in the mood for either a lecture or a fight.

Is that coffee?” I asked, pointing at the mug in her hands. “And if it isn’t, do you mind if I make some?”

Virginia lifted an eyebrow. There was little chance that she hadn’t immediately realized what I was trying to avoid; I could only hope that she’d respect the effort and back off the topic of my parents for the time being. Mercifully, she nodded after a second or two, and gestured with the mug towards a Keurig on the counter. “You remember where the mugs are?”

It was good to learn that everything hadn’t changed. The mugs were exactly where I remembered them being. Shockingly, it seemed like Virginia hadn’t replaced the mugs themselves, either. I moved the generic black and white mugs aside, in search of a very particular one. My search proved successful by the time I reached the third row.

Carefully, I extracted the mug and held it up for Virginia’s inspection. “You still have this?”

Of course I still have that,” Virginia said. “What kind of person throws away a Christmas gift from their baby granddaughter?”

The mug in question was a misshapen wreck of a thing, as if Frankenstein had made his monster out of clay instead of miscellaneous human body parts. Where the interiors should have been smooth, the walls melted over each other in waves and formed a gradual slope down to the inside bottom. It wasn’t perfectly circular, of course – my childish hands had lacked the dexterity to use the pottery wheel all that well – but had ended up in a sort of lazy oval instead. The handle had clearly been designed for someone with smaller, more delicate fingers than either myself or my grandmother.

I traced my index finger along the underside and felt the tiny grooves where I’d attempted to write my name before the clay had been able to dry. If my memory served me correctly, I’d made it as far as the second letter of my middle name before I’d simply given up and scribbled out a line to signify the rest.

What do you even do with something like this?” I asked.

I don’t show it off to guests, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Virginia said. I looked up from the mug and found a genuinely warm smile on her face. That just felt strange.

I mean…why hold onto it at all?”

Instead of answering, Virginia turned fully away from the sliding door and gave me a steady look for several long seconds. Then, she crossed the room, plucking the mug from fingers as she passed, and filled it with coffee from the Keurig. She handed it back to me before she spoke. “Are you being serious right now?”

There was an undeniable note of actual pain in her voice. She hid it well, but not well enough. In the face of that, I couldn’t find a way to articulate my thoughts. It wasn’t that I thought my grandmother didn’t love me. It was more that her form of love had always been fixed on the singular goal of making me the best woman that I, or anyone, could possibly be. To that end, she’d pushed me relentlessly, responded to failures with withering disappointment, and rewarded successes with a series of ever-increasing goals.

I understand why she’d raised me that way, of course. Virginia had grown up in a different time, when women – especially black women – had to work two or three times as hard in order to receive even half as much as privileged men. She had passed down that exacting work ethic to her daughter and, when my mother fell victim to the hands-off parenting style of the seventies and eighties, Virginia had taken it upon herself to toughen up her grandchildren.

Those lessons had taken root in my older sister, but not in me. When I’d taken my shares in the family business and set off to do my own thing, I’d expected her to go nuclear. I had not expected her to become a real-life version of Anna Huxtable.

No,” I said, “I’m just…nevermind, forget about it.”

The look on Virginia’s face told me, in no uncertain terms, that she would not forget about it. But she graciously dropped the subject anyway with a slight nod.

What are you looking at?” I asked, hoping to ease the transition into safer conversational territory.

Virginia shrugged one shoulder. “Nothing in particular. Just passing the time, is all.”

Waiting for something?”

I’ve got a fundraising thing tonight,” Virginia said. “You’d think retiring would give me a reason to skip these damn parties, but no, everyone still wants to meet with the original Ford.” She made a sour expression and I smothered the desire to laugh out loud.

What’s the charity?”

Virginia took a long sip from her mug. “You know your sister is chair of the outreach committee, don’t you?”

I did. Whenever I found the time to check all of my various email accounts, I made a special point to look into the company email address my parents had practically forced on me. Even though I didn’t work for the company – and, in fact, had never worked for the company in any official fashion – I was still privy to the internal memos and messages that passed through the halls of power. I’d seen the message about my sister’s promotion before leaving for London.

My grandmother must have seen acknowledgment in my expression because she continued without waiting for a verbal response. “Well, she started up a charity for battered women,” she said. “The committee decided that they ought to throw the first fundraiser in the city where the company started, with the woman who started it.”

Did you get any say in that?”

Not a bit,” Virginia said. She made the sour smile again. “If I’d known you were coming to town, I might have been able to…”

Virginia trailed off, mid-sentence. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where her thoughts had traveled to. “Listen, I am not going to -”

The front door opened before I had a chance to finish my sentence. Virginia and I both turned to look in that direction. A minute later, Devlin entered the kitchen. He had a few shopping bags distributed between his hands or adorning his arms. When he saw me and my grandmother, he froze in the doorway, like we’d caught him doing something wrong.

Did I, uh -” He stopped, gathered his thoughts, and started again with the faint Irish accent in his voice now. “Am I interrupting something? I was just thinking about making a little something to snack on, after a hard day out on the town.”

I pointed at the bags on his arms. “What are those?”

He obviously didn’t get the joke. The rise of meme culture must have passed him by during his years behind bars. “Had to do a bit of shopping,” he said. “What I brought wasn’t really, uh…fit for the environment.”

Sweating like a whore in church, eh?” Virginia asked.

I blinked. Devlin did the same thing. He pieced together the meaning a little faster than I would have expected, judging from the slightly awkward chuckle he offered up in response. “I suppose you could say that, sure.”

Virginia’s eyes narrowed slightly. It wasn’t a big thing. A random observer would’ve noticed it, sure, but they wouldn’t have had the necessary context to understand what it meant. It wasn’t the expression she made when she sensed a secret in the wings. It wasn’t even the face she made when she was angry, perturbed, or otherwise upset.

No, the expression on her face was the one she wore she was scheming.

Devlin could have figured it out, given time and the opportunity to focus exclusively on decoding my grandmother’s nonverbal tells. He had neither of those, however. So he walked, face-first, into Virginia’s plot.

Is that a Tom Ford bag I see?” Virginia asked.

It seemed appropriate,” Devlin said.

Virginia turned to me. “Sarah, where’d that handsome man you came here with get to?”

I didn’t know exactly where Michel was, but I couldn’t say that to Virginia. Something told me that she’d frown at the knowledge that he was off somewhere with his…I didn’t really know what Mila was to him, but it was entirely too complicated to explain to my grandmother, even if that whole ‘in search of illegal weapons’ thing wasn’t a factor.

Out,” I said lamely. The word was barely out of my mouth before I regretted my vagueness.

That same vagueness didn’t seem to bother Virginia at all. “Hmm. I suppose, then, that means you need an escort for this fundraiser, doesn’t it?”

Fundraiser?” Devlin asked. “Escort? What did I miss?”

Sarah was going to come with me to a party tonight,” Virginia said, “and I was just thinking that she’d probably want someone she knows to go with her. They can get so boring, after all.”

I held up both hands, palms facing Virginia, and took a step away from her. “I did not agree to do any such thing.”

I’m an old woman,” Virginia said. She placed a hand on her hip, as if that weak effort was actually going to fool me. “I don’t know if I’m up to all the schmoozing and hand-shaking.”

Okay, but I’m not up for all that, Virginia! I decided not to work for the company for several very good reasons. Some of which were specifically related to doing this sort of gladhanding.”

Virginia sighed, shifting her attention back to Devlin with a minor adjustment of her eyes. “It’d be too much to ask you to come with me, I suppose. We only met this afternoon. It’s alright; I’ve been hosting events like this for…what, fifty years? One more won’t kill me.”

I knew what she was doing. Virginia wasn’t even trying to be subtle about the manipulation. I opened my mouth to warn Devlin, but caught myself off before my lips had an opportunity to form so much as a single syllable. There wasn’t a clear reason in my head that kept me from speaking, so much as an amorphous feeling.

She’d kept my childhood abortion of a coffee mug for years. Was it really so much for her to ask me to accompany her to a silly fundraiser? I’d attended dozens of them in my youth. Odds were high that I’d be able to navigate through the sycophants and dilettantes with a third of my attention.

Oh my God,” I said. A good portion of the exasperation in my voice was genuine; the rest, I faked, just so that she didn’t think she’d gotten her way without difficulty. “Where even is this thing?”

At the office,” Virginia answered immediately. “They turned the fifteenth floor conference room into a ballroom for the event, I think. Why does that matter?”

The fifthteenth floor conference room?”

Virginia nodded. “The servers, up on the twentieth, put off too much heat. Otherwise, they probably would’ve tried for a rooftop thing. You know your sister’s so avant garde with these things.”

It was either too good to be true or a vicious twist of fate. Either way, it was too coincidental to ignore.

I turned to Devlin. “I guess we’re keeping her company tonight, then.”

He gave me a questioning look with his eyebrows and I responded with a nonverbal assurance. Virginia seemed pleased that she’d gotten her way and began busying herself around the kitchen.

It didn’t occur to me until days later that her manipulation had never been aimed at Devlin to begin with. And it took me months to figure out what she’d really been after, in the first place.

It only took Virginia hours to figure out what I’d been after.

Chapter 38

Virginia’s home had enough space to house twice as many people as I’d brought with me, with room to spare, but she contrived a reason to place us all within the same wing of the building. Michel and I shared a room, to our mutual intense embarrassment. Mila requested a room with a corner view which, conveniently, happened to be located in a spot which gave her a great vantage over the driveway and any approaching vehicles. Devlin made no special requests and he ended up, by sheer coincidence, only two rooms away from me.

He and I hadn’t spoken since the brief exchange down in the kitchen. If I’d been honest with myself, I would have acknowledged that my reactions weren’t very fair to him. He had every right to be upset. Maybe I would even gone so far as to accept that his side commentary was the least I deserved for springing so much on him, with so little warning. But I wasn’t honest with myself, so I stalked into the room without so much as a glance in his direction, and slammed the door with far more force than necessary.

It was petty, sure, but that didn’t make it feel any less good.

A moment later, the doorknob turned and I prepared to hurl verbal fire at Devlin. I choked back the insults when Michel’s head appeared around the corner, instead of my ex-husband’s. “Should I go somewhere else or…?”

I blew out a breath and ran both hands through my hair before answering. “No, you’re…you’re fine. This is your room too, apparently. At least as long as we’re stuck working out of my grandmother’s house.”

Michel opened the door wide enough for him to slip inside, then closed it behind him with a soft click. Between CJ and the as-yet unnamed guard, our luggage had been moved inside and placed in appropriately discreet places. Michel crossed the room to his luggage and sat down on top of a trunk. He didn’t say anything, choosing instead to tilt his head and turn a level gaze in my direction.

I endured that for as long as I could – a full two minutes, which seemed more than reasonable to me – before I started to angrily unpack my own suitcase. Still, I felt his eyes on my back.

What?” I asked, without turning around. Clothes flew out of the suitcase and only managed to land in the bed’s general area, instead of on the mattress proper.

I did not say anything.”

I know that you aren’t saying anything, Michel. I would prefer it if you did, instead of trying to communicate whatever you’re thinking through the sheer power of brainwaves.”

I was not…” He cut himself, waited a few seconds, and tried again. “I am not sure what to think. If it feels like I am trying to tell you something, it is not on purpose.”

You’re not sure what to think about what?” Devlin had told me at one point that repeated questions implied the speaker was struggling to find conversational footing. The knowledge that he’d easily be able to read through my actions only stoked my anger higher. “Do you think he was right, doing what he did?”

I am not sure what he did,” Michel stressed. “Remember, I am not a native speaker, Sarah. Innuendo does not always translate well.”

You aren’t a – nevermind. You do understand that he was saying two things at the same thing downstairs, right? Even if you don’t necessarily get what he meant?”

He cleared his throat, just as I reached the bottom of a suitcase. I weighed the merits of turning my emotions to the task of savaging another one, but decided against it. Michel hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t even sure that Devlin had really done anything wrong, current emotional storm notwithstanding. I cleared a spot on the bed for me to sit and took my place there, facing Michel.

I know what you are talking about, yes,” he said.

And do you think he was right to do what he did? To say what he said?”

Michel responded with a helpless shrug. “What do you think, Sarah? He did not say those things for my benefit. I think that Emilia noticed, but I also do not think she cares. And it certainly was not for your grandmother.”

I paused to give that a little bit of thought. Michel had a point. It wasn’t as though Devlin had coded messages in such a way as to put me down in front of my grandmother. Maybe if she’d known about our late marriage, but otherwise? She was likely to chalk it up to a personality quirk and move on to other, more important things. So why would he say things that he knew I’d understand and take offense at?

Devlin was a spur-of-the-moment thinker, a man who acted first and thought things over days or weeks later when the dust settled. He was getting better at crafting plans that took longer than a few seconds to put into action, but it was still wildly out of character for him. He let his emotions do the talking and simply followed in their wake, whenever possible.

So his actions downstairs couldn’t have been a part of some grand plan to get under my skin. He hadn’t the time to come up with anything like that, to begin with, and Devlin had never been particularly petty. What possibilities did that leave, then? Could he have just been showing off, demonstrating his ability to think faster on his feet than I could, and throwing in a little touch of double meaning to vent his emotions? Or had it just slipped out, unplanned and unbidden?

That last bit seemed like the most likely answer. Except that, in order for it to be true, Devlin would have needed to be completely off of his game. When he was playing a character, he became that character. Outside of the occasional nose-tweaking – his immediate rivalry with Hill came to mind – he wouldn’t ever risk breaking character and he certainly wouldn’t risk burning an identity just to score a point. Unless…unless he was that hurt by the revelation that I’d never told my parents about his race. If that was the case, there was no telling exactly how rattled he might be.

I’d expected to hurt him, but I hadn’t expected to shatter him. Even though I wasn’t quite sure what I’d done or why it had affected him so much, a deep pool of guilt welled up in my stomach.

Michel? How…how bad did I mess up?”

He gave the question a serious amount of consideration before he answered. Even as I found myself irritated at the prolonged silence, I appreciated that he wasn’t just spouting the first thing that popped into his mind.

I have been kept secret before,” Michel said finally. He was speaking slowly, like someone who’d just learned the language instead of a near-native speaker. “It was not a…pleasant experience.”

Put in that light, I felt even worse about my omission. “That’s not the same thing,” I protested.

Is it not? You were in love, but you did not want anyone to find out exactly who you were in love with. How is it different?”

I opened my mouth to reply and, slowly, closed it as I realized that I didn’t actually have an argument in my defense.

Michel continued, slow and inexorable. “I do not think you have ruined anything, if that is what you are worried about.”

You’re telling me that I basically buried Devlin in the closet, didn’t let him know he was in the closet, and then sprung it all on him without giving him a chance to adapt. How would that not ruin things?”

There are differences in the situation,” Michel said.

Like?”

He gave me a long, intense look. I got the impression that he was attempting to transfer some message, using nothing but his eyes, but I couldn’t quite get a grip on his meaning. I drew in the breath to ask him to speak his thoughts plainly, but a knock at the door interrupted me.

Sarah?” Devlin’s voice, tentative and hesitating. “Can we talk?”

Before I had an opportunity to respond, Michel stood up and made his way over to the door. “I need to see what vehicles your grandmother has in her garage,” he said. “It will be better to know now than to find out later, no?”

It was a thin excuse and we both knew it. But I made no effort to stop him. Michel allowed Devlin to enter the room, slipped around him, and shut the door in his wake.

Devlin and I stood alone, several feet apart, looking at any- and everything in the room except each other. Academically, I was willing to accept that I’d dealt him a deeper wound than expected, but my pride still wouldn’t allow me to make the first peace overture. I tried to will Devlin to understand my position: he’d attacked me for making the only possible decision I could have made, given the circumstances, and I wasn’t about to pretend that I could have made any other choice. I was sorry that I’d hurt him, and I understood that he had his own valid reasons to be upset with me, but I just couldn’t take the first step without ceding some ethereal territory.

Either he understood or he was less welded to his own pride. Whatever the cause, Devlin extended the olive branch before I was forced to. “I shouldn’t have said those things,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. It was a mistake that I made because…well, whatever the reason, it wasn’t appropriate. Really, I’m sorry.”

With that first step taken, I was free to speak my own thoughts. “I didn’t think about how it would affect you,” I admitted. “And I really should have considered that. That one’s on me, and I’m sorry for insulting you like that.”

He blinked. “Insulting me? What’re you talking about?”

It wasn’t like I thought you weren’t good enough for them or anything like that,” I said. “You know that wasn’t the case, don’t you?”

It really hadn’t crossed my mind, but it’s good to hear anyway.”

Devlin’s tone said the exact opposite of that, but I didn’t realize that until I was already halfway through the next sentence before my mind caught up and translated his body language into something I understood.

My parents aren’t even like that,” I said. “But that’s not the point. I shouldn’t have kept you a secret from them and I really want you to know that I get how big of a deal it is.”

Sarah,” Devlin said. He dragged out the two syllables of my name and, finally, I caught the hint of danger in his voice. I wasn’t at all frightened of Devlin’s anger – at most, he might raise his voice, but even that was unlikely in a situation where my grandmother could hear his voice – but the possibility that I’d somehow misspoken again loomed like a mountain in the distance.

Did I say something wrong?” I asked. “You know I’m not good at this, Dev, but -”

He raised a hand and cut me off, mid-sentence. “Do you even understand what upset me? Actually, truly understand?”

I thought over the last few minutes of conversation and cross-referenced them with the exchange we’d had in the car on the way over to my grandmother’s house. “I…think so?” I said, finally. “You’re upset that I didn’t tell my parents that you’re white, as if I was somehow ashamed of that.”

He barked out a sharp, bitter laugh. “You think that bothered me?”

…did it not?”

Don’t get me wrong,” Devlin said, “that’s plenty irritating, but seriously? It’s not like I forgot about the differences in our skin color. I don’t think about it often, but you really have no idea how much shit I got from other crews back when we were…well, you know.”

I might not have known specifically, but I had a pretty good idea and was willing to bet that I’d dealt with a lot more subtle racism and sexism than Devlin. This didn’t seem like the right moment to bring that up, though.

What, then?” I asked. “What got you so upset?”

Sarah, you weren’t hiding me from your parents because you were ashamed of the fact that I’m white,” Devlin said. “I mean, sure, maybe that had something to do with it, but that wasn’t the real reason.”

I felt my hackles begin to rise. I tried to suppress the flash of anger and was only moderately successful. “Then why? Please, Devlin, tell me exactly what I was feeling.”

You were ashamed that I’m a thief,” he said immediately. “Not even that, actually. You were ashamed that you’re a thief.”

The anger that had threatened to rise up, higher than my internal walls, evaporated instantly. Was he right? Devlin did have an eerie ability to accurately spot what someone was actually feeling, as opposed to what they claimed to feel. He wouldn’t have been very good at his job, otherwise. But was he actually able to read me that well?

I tried to distance myself from my own thoughts, so that I could examine them dispassionately. The effort wasn’t wholly successful, but I did manage to give myself a bit of perspective. In the deepest parts of my heart, I knew that my parents wouldn’t really have cared all that much about Devlin’s race. Even if they had, it wasn’t as though I’d decided to live my entire life based on what did or did not meet their expectations. So why had I used that as a scapegoat?

The answer came back from the hollows of my mind instantly: because it was easier. Devlin didn’t have a biological family anymore. He made light of that fact and generally tiptoed around the subject, but facts were facts. He wouldn’t have been able to understand the delicate interplay between an average mother and daughter pair, or a pair of siblings Toss in the added difficulty of my family’s public identities and it quickly became impossible that Devlin would be able to do more than build a vague mental model of them. Essentially, blaming my failure to properly inform them of matters would have fallen outside of his experience..if and only if that had been my real reason for staying quiet. The more I thought about it, the more I was beginning to doubt that fact.

Devlin was still talking. “That’s why you didn’t want to tell them about me. How do you explain how we met?  You’d have to pick a lie and stick to it, forever. When your family asks what I do for a living – and we both know that was going to be a question, at some point – what answer do you give them? Art acquisition? Wealth redistribution?” He laughed again and the sound was almost acrid in the humid air of the house.

That…that isn’t true,” I protested, hating the weakness and insecurity in my voice. “Why would I even be ashamed of that?”

Devlin shrugged both shoulders. “How should I know? I’m not in your head, Sarah; I’m just good at picking up on signals. And you were signaling ‘shame’ the entire way from the airport to your grandmother’s house. Now that we’re here…” He trailed off, inviting me to fill in the rest of his thought, without explicitly inviting me to do so.

I couldn’t find any words to fill the silence. As soon as Devlin had spoken his suspicions out loud, they’d found purchase in my brain and refused to relax their grip. I restricted myself to staring in his direction, while my mouth worked open and closed in search of the proper answer.

No such answer arrived.

After nearly a full minute of this, Devlin shrugged again. “Anyway. I just wanted to apologize. It won’t get in the way of the job again, promise. I just needed some time to process.”

I wanted to tell him that he was processing this wrong, that there were a dozen reasons why someone in my position would have made the choice I’d made. But that would have been a lie: there were only a precious few reasons someone would emerge from the shelter of privilege, take up life as a hacker, and still balk at the idea of introducing a loved one to family.  Fear wasn’t one of them.

So, what was Devlin actually right? Was I using the imagined reactions of my parents as an excuse to cover some deep-seated insecurities?

Are we good?”

I hauled myself back into the present. “What?”

Are we good?” Devlin repeated. “Everyone made mistakes, so everyone could use a do-over. Sound like a deal?”

I nodded to signal my agreement, but also because I couldn’t quite trust my voice. Almost every cell in my body wanted to violently defend themselves against his accusations, but not all of them. Some of them only wanted to curl up in a ball and steadfastly refuse to accep the validity of Devlin’s arguments.

Devlin took the nod as assent, turned, and left the room without another word. I was pretty sure he was still keeping some things close to his vest – which he always did – but I couldn’t deal with the prospect of navigating through his accusations and then checking myself for any corresponding thoughts.

What I needed, I realized, was an appointment with Doctor Bridges.

But, that appointment being currently out of the question, I choose instead to busy myself with the process of unpacking and cleaning up the mess I’d made while tearing through my luggage. That didn’t take nearly as long as expected. I sought out places to stash clothing and made use of them. Still, no one returned to the room.

Eventually, with nothing left to do, I laid down on the bed and allowed exhaustion to seep back into my conscious mind. When Michel returned to the room – if Michel returned to the room – he would have found me passed out on top of the sheets. To an outside observer, I might even have looked peaceful in sleep.

But, within the walls of my own mind, I was anything but peaceful. Echoing refrains of Devlin’s accusation returned to me in the darkness, time and time again, and my sleep – if that’s what you could even call it – was anything but restful.